Scottish or not, it was easy to distinguish Labour members of parliament returning to Westminster from rays of sunshine.
A conference kindest described as definitely not triumphal, underwhelming polls and a close-run thing in Heywood and Middleton cast a pall over the new parliamentary term.
Auguries of hard times were easy to find. As predicted here previously, there were calls for the return to the frontline for Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson, and (as also predicted here) anonymous sources briefed journalists, rather unfairly, about the weakness of the leader’s office (Every leader’s team is composed of insightful geniuses when ahead, self-absorbed idiots when struggling).
Credit, then, to that same leader’s office for delivering a successful first week back week for their man, even as he struggled to find his voice. A strong performance at the parliamentary Labour party, intelligently positioned and briefed, was followed up by a prime minister’s question time that exposed a weak spot in the government and won Labour headlines. Even the unsought parliamentary debate over recognising Palestine proved a boon – while some Labour MPs were unhappy with Labour’s whip, for many others it was a reminder of the different tone Ed Miliband’s leadership has given Labour’s foreign policy.
A successful period, then, and needed respite from negativity.
Sadly though, it is not quite enough to soothe Labour nerves entirely. For, like the tremors on the rails that presage an oncoming train, MPs have begun to feel the first signs of the election campaign attacks on Labour – on economic credibility, welfare, immigration, ‘standing up’ for England, and on Miliband personally. The Tories have scarcely bothered to hide the outline of their plans. The trains are coming, and our MPs worry that Labour’s campaign bus is parked on the tracks, arguing over the best way to go.
It did not take a genius to predict that David Cameron would use any attempt to grant Scotland further devolution to press forward with an ‘English votes for English laws’ policy that was in the Tory manifesto at the last election, but Labour’s response appeared hasty and panicked.
That the leader’s speech did not mention immigration and the deficit increased these fears. These are likely to be two of the trains coming down the Tory track, and Labour MPs wonder why the party has not found it easy to step away from a clearly signalled attack.
Some such worries are unfounded. The Labour leadership is not unaware of these threats. It has just decided that to engage with them will not help as much as opening up new fronts on friendlier ground. That is why Labour’s response to difficult times was to focus on a new NHS cancer pledge, to expose a Tory minister as cruel and uncaring, and to play down the Conservatives’ attempt to make a European referendum an election issue. Labour’s campaign team wants the election to be about living standards, the NHS, and who is on your side – all areas where the party enjoys a significant lead over Cameron’s Conservatives.
In general, this is a smart approach. Why spend time talking about your opponent’s issues when you could be focusing minds on your own? What is more, Miliband’s best moments as leader have come when he stuck to his own agenda and did not allow himself to be distracted by potential attacks. However, immigration, welfare and the economy are some of the most important issues to voters. The deficit, while not as important to the public, sits at the core of doubts about Labour economic policy. If Labour’s election playbook requires keeping the conversation on our issues, then we need to put a brake on the attacks the Tories want to make, not simply hope they do not hit us.
This is trickier than it looks, largely because there is a big debate inside the party on these issues. From welfare caps to migration, spending and tax pledges, this debate ranges well beyond the leader’s office and can generate some unusual alliances (Euro-friendly moderates and the hard-left on free movement, for one).
Unfortunately, while we make up our minds about whether to be radical or pragmatic, to make big offers or small, to be free or fair on migration, the Tory train is still coming down the tracks. It is up to all of us to get the campaign bus off the Tory line.
The mood of the party in Scotland is febrile. The post-referendum surge in membership for the Scottish National party and Labour’s fall in Westminster polling has changed parliamentary arithmetic dramatically. A debate has begun, with Johann Lamont being criticised as Labour leader and calls for rediscovering ‘socialist purpose’, while heavyweights like Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy are touted as candidates for the Scottish parliament.
Panic is unjustified. There is little benefit and a lot of risk in changing the Scottish team before the general election, while if Cleggmania taught us anything it was that dramatic eruptions of political enthusiasm can disperse as quickly as a cloud of Icelandic ash.
So Murphy’s disavowal of Scottish ambition is wise. There is no reason why a message of ‘vote Labour to kick the Tories out’ cannot win over anti-Tory Scottish voters. In the meantime, Labour needs unity more than anything else.
However, after the general election, whatever the results, dislodging Nicola Sturgeon from Bute House will be a tough challenge. Labour in Scotland must pull together now, but will need to put its best foot forward for 2016. If 2015 goes well, there will be no debate over what that means. If it does not, things might change.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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