Returning from a holiday after a small political earthquake is an intriguing experience.
People talk in hushed tones about the immense significance of the events you missed, while you struggle to notice any difference.
To summarise the astonishing events: A rebel Conservative MP has returned to the Commons as a rebel UKIP MP. The Government has performed badly in two by-elections. The opposition has lost a point or so in the polls, while the Conservatives continue to score in the low thirties. These are not earth shattering occurrences. Nor is the revelation that Ed Miliband’s poll ratings are less than stellar, while the government is unpopular.
Most astonishingly of all, it is confirmed there is a significant dissatisfaction with politics, for the simple reason politics is not delivering much in the way of rainbows and pots of gold.
As a result those who expect to have to deliver their promises shuffle embarrassedly and wonder if they can’t put a little steak in the gruel and trade hairshirts for rayon undercrackers, those promising to slap gruelslingers around the chops and garb all in silk raiments find an appreciative, if minority, audience.
Is any of this a surprise? It shouldn’t be. These are trends that have been going on for months. Some of us have been talking about Labour’s gradual, slow polling slippage for over a year, to general indifference. Same for various qualities of the top team.
If there has been any reaction, it’s been to say ‘ah, but Labour still leads‘ or ‘ah, but the 2010 Lib Dems‘ or ‘ah, but the Tories won’t improve their share of the vote’. It wasn’t complacency, exactly. But it was denial.
Heads up then. Things are probably going to get much more uncomfortable.
In the last thirty years, only one opposition has improved their poll ratings between the final conference season of the political cycle and the subsequent general election1.
In every other instance, the opposition has declined by between three and thirteen points.
I’d put my expectation on the low side of this, because when oppositions have declined by larger amounts, they have enjoyed larger starting poll shares than Labour does now – going from 49% to 35% in 1991-92 and from 52% to 44% in 19972. I don’t expect that sort of dip.
Absent a ‘Winter of Discontent’3, you’d expect Labour’s vote share to fall perhaps three to five points between now and the election, putting Labour somewhere between 29-33%. This is more or less in line with what Stephen Fishers’ election predictors suggest.
Look underneath the hood, and there are reasons enough to expect a seepage. Labour voter’s relatively low conviction we’d run the economy better, have a better leadership or deliver our promises all hint at a soft vote.
Now, maybe this won’t apply this time.
One reason it might not is that the biggest gainers in the last few months of the electoral cycle have often been a third party, whether alliance or Liberal Democrats. This time they’re in government.
Yes, Things might be different4.
But even if the race isn’t always to the swift, or the battle to the strong, Labour people need to steel themselves for such a pattern, because unless we outperform the historical trend, we’re heading to the low thirties with a bullet.
This is in large part due to an extended period of wishful thinking in which imaginary armies of non-voters, young voters and the disaffected were conjured from the vasty deep in order to provide 40% and a majority. It’s time to kill that pleasant fantasy off.
To achieve this victory, we assured ourselves that all we had to do this time was promise to do better at reducing inequalities, promising radical change, and outline how nasty the nasty Tories were.
Of course we’d said all this before, but this time, we’d really mean it, and by shedding the restrictions of our past failures to deliver our ambitions like a beautiful progressive butterfly, we’d inspire a whole new generation of voters to rally to the cause.
Unsurprisingly, a political strategy grounded in such pleasant daydreams has somewhat underperformed expectations.
Are we really surprised?
None of this means Labour is destined to remain in opposition. Two factors remain in Labour’s favour.
First, David Cameron has repeatedly fluffed the opportunity to remake the Conservative party as the moderate juggernaut it has the potential to be. Perhaps he doesn’t really want to. Perhaps he’s too afraid of the pleasant daydreams of the idiots in his own party and outside it to appeal to the rest of us.
Whatever the reason, he’s repeatedly failed to confront Tory imbecility, and that will cost him dearly.
In an alternate universe the Tory party did not reduce the top rate of tax, increased the minimum wage, and squeezed their friends a little tighter to give to the middle classes. In that world, the Tories are on 40 per cent and cruising. Thankfully, we don’t live in it.
Second, Labour has, at heart, a pretty intelligent policy programme.
Sure, it’s not the radical policy agenda we pretended we’d come up with until we did the sums and recoiled in horror.
It’s not transformative boldness. it won’t end inequality or rip up neo-liberalism. It’ll just do a bit more good for people who need it most, and put the little money we’ve got available in more of the right places, giving people a slightly better chance of a job, a decent home and a good education.
If we quit pretending that doing a little well is insignificant, and start realising it’s a huge deal and the most we’ve any right to expect a government can achieve, we might even convince people it’s worth changing government to get it.
In other words, we should stop worrying about the people who are impressed by promises of silk and steaks, and start worrying about those who don’t believe we can even deliver less gristle and more cotton.
For the rest, it is for the birds. We’re not going to transform capitalism. We’re not going to enact the most radical transfer of power in history, whatever that means. So please, let’s stop pretending. It might make us forget the important boring stuff we’ll really struggle to do.
But there’s one more thing.
To my dear friends in the soft left. This is your battle. You’ve been running things for four years now.
If you don’t like a moderate, gradualist, fiscally cautious programme, fine. No-one says you have to.
I’m not a centrist because I think we win that way, I’m a centrist because I think it’s the right thing to do with the resources we have and the limits we face. Winning is just a pleasant consequence of sounding convincing and realistic.
Just because I believe in the agenda I outline doesn’t mean you must. If you think it’s a sell out, or timid, or too much of a concession, you’ve every right to fight on the ground of your choosing.
That I think your approach is more idle dream than reality doesn’t make me right. If you think there’s a better way to win, go for it. It’s how you took control of the party, saying it was possible to be more ambitious, to dream bigger dreams. The party wanted to hear that.
No-one is stopping you pursue those dreams. So maybe you need to do what you promised back then. Bluntly, the only reason you haven’t done so is you privately suspect it just won’t work. Just like it didn’t under Gordon, just like it didn’t under Neil.
I agree. It won’t.
But you might need to learn that the hard way.
So if you’ve got a plan you prefer, go for it. Maybe I’m wrong and it works. You could get in with our current vote share. It is possible just about, and you’ll get a chance to implement your plans (subject to the agreement of Ian Lavery MP).
If it works, to the victor the spoils. You’ll run the party for a generation and get the chance to create the progressive social democratic model you crave.
If not, the route I suggest is waiting, but you’ll have to really believe in it.
No-one will be convinced by a reluctant, half-hearted, cavilling centrist. Just look at Cameron. You can’t drag yourself reluctantly to gradualism, because the constant temptation to go a just little further will undermine your message every time. Your darting eyes will betray you. You have to mean it.
So, the choice is yours. Just own it, whatever happens. This one is on you.
- That was the 2005 Tories, who endured a brief dip immediately after Labour’s 2004 conference and then returned to where they were that summer [↩]
- Clearly, this may be to do with improved polling methodologies, as much as actual shifts [↩]
- Though intriguingly, the 1979 Conservatives did not gain ground between Conference season and the Election. Rather, Labour lost significant support [↩]
- Maybe UKIP voters will return to the Tories. Maybe they won’t. Maybe the Greens will surge. Certainly, I’d expect a lot of 2010 Lib Dems will stay with Labour, though that’s already included in our current score. There’s a decent chance their return reduces the pre-election desertion rate though [↩]