December and, more importantly Christmas, are an extended sojourn where the only politics on offer are that of the family variety. The battles and spoils of the year past recede into an unusual outburst of bonhomie. That and it is always worth seeing Ed Balls dressed as Santa. The serene landscape allows a nuanced look back at the year past, and the year ahead.
The assessment of Labour’s 2013 divides opinion, to say the least. It is either the year in which the party cemented its frontrunner status as the most likely victor of the pending general election, or a year in which missed opportunities and downright stupidity will see Labour snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As with most things, there is a happy medium. Labour has clung limpet-like to its small lead for many a month and internal divisions are, by and large, abating as the general election comes into view. That is eminently sensible, but a joyful December should not disguise the many and myriad concerns those in the Labour fold have as the new year stretches out before us.
As Labour takes stock at the overlap of 2013 and 2014 both the year past and the year ahead promise to be turbulent. The year past saw economic growth return to these shores. It was a blessing, of course, but in purely cold political terms the uptick presented a challenge for a party who had spent the best part of three years declaring, often violently, that the current course steered by the government was wrong. Balls has since appeared unsure of the right political analysis to take, anchored, as he is, in his initial assessment of May 2010 that the coalition were going to go ‘too far, too fast’. The personal nature of his battle with sworn foe George Osborne must surely end if the Labour party are to move on. The public are not fixated on the politics of three years ago and have increasingly given the chancellor the benefit of the doubt as economic growth returns. Labour has not yet found a replacement for its old argument.
For the much-maligned Labour leader 2013 was a year of two halves, of stoicism and precious few policy announcements in the first half, and of radicalism and disorder in the second half. Miliband has the potential to surprise even the most seasoned and war-weary politico and, more importantly, an uncanny ability to tap into the public’s consciousness at the right time, with the right message. He is both defined against New Labour but also displays striking similarities with the rituals that were deployed in the mid-1990s. So, last year, Miliband and his shadow chancellor committed themselves to the coalition’s spending plans. In July he announced an unprecedented assault on the party’s historic trade union links. It is fair to say that Miliband’s predecessors, those he seeks to echo and those he seeks to define himself against, dared not have embarked on the task he has set himself.
The second half of 2013 saw the Labour leader dictate the political mood music in a way an opposition leader has not done in decades. One Thursday in late August the leader of the opposition determined government policy. Through either agony and indecision or glint-eyed ruthlessness, take your pick, Labour voted against action in Syria. Miliband’s defiance, when haunting scenes were coming out of the war-torn country, split the party down the middle. The public by and large agreed with the position the party ultimately took and the Syrian vote will be added to standing up to Murdoch and his flagship energy price-freeze announcement as part of the Milband narrative.
The Labour party, with its long and proud tradition of waiting to be defeated, is competitive for the next general election. Labour equally has a tradition of, once it loses an election it loses the next one even more heavily. Even the party’s biggest detractors cannot fathom that. Much will rest on Miliband, as the party’s apex, who during 2013 ranged from dictating government policy to presiding over a mini-leadership crisis in the summer. 2014 holds no fewer challenges for Labour.
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