Labour’s difficulty pulling ahead

The latest opinion polls show Labour’s small lead seems fairly consistent but it remains too small for them to have any confidence in achieving a majority. Ironically despite their currently pathetic level of support the most likely scenario remains the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power. At one level this failure of the Labour Party to be further ahead is surprising. David Cameron has never captured the public imagination and both he and his government continue to be seen as an out of touch posh elite who enjoyed austerity far too much and had very little real understanding of what it actually meant to the British people.

Labour have of course plenty of baggage of their own in the public perception. Tony Blair’s personal disingenuousness and disastrous foreign policy may now be things of the past but the albatross of economic incompetence still seems to hang over Labour. To an extent that may be unfair and personally I suspect history will judge Brown’s handling of the economy less harshly than is currently political fashion. In addition his cripplingly expensive rescue of the banks may well have forestalled an even more serious recession than ensued. However, the reality remains that Labour and Ed Balls are much less trusted on the economy than the Conservatives and George Osborne. These are problems Labour cannot easily deal with in the short term.

On a number of other issues, however, Labour policies have been more in step with the public mood than the Tories. Ed Milliband’s suggestion of an energy price freeze proved extremely popular and despite the undoubted need for energy firms to raise income for future infrastructure improvements their recent profits have seemed excessive. The fact that one of the energy “big six” providers promptly agreed to the proposal suggested that Milliband’s idea was not as foolish as the energy companies and the Tories at first tried to make it seem.

Labour’s championing of the “Cost of Living Crisis” has also been popular and given further credence to the narrative of the Tories seeming aloof and out of touch. Apparently Labour are also considering proposing part nationalisation of the railways. This would be a popular policy and the coalition’s plan to reprivatise the East Coast Mainline despite its current success as a publicly owned company, in contrast to two failures under private ownership, seems perverse.

Labour might be able to go further on issues such as nationalisation. The privatisation of Royal Mail was not especially popular (though New Labour also tried it). Going as far as part nationalisation of the electricity sector might also be popular as the ability of that sector to run a proper market with open understandable choice has always been very limited.

Where Labour is weak, however, is over Europe. Clearly they are not as weak as the Liberal Democrats who have managed to choose as the one policy they have not reneged on the least popular position they espouse: further European integration. Labour, however, are still much too pro Europe to be in keeping with the national mood which whilst not necessarily as Europhobic as UKIP are highly and increasingly Eurosceptic.

Labour’s refusal to match Cameron’s offer of a referendum is odd. Labour is the party which offered the only other referendum the British electorate have ever been given on Europe. Once Labour had a strong tradition of Euroscepticism and although withdrawal from Europe may have been a policy in their 1983 manifesto (the longest suicide note in British political history) that does not mean that returning to a more Eurosceptical position would be an impediment now.

Gordon Brown had problems during the last election when describing a Labour supporter as a bigot because of her concern over immigration. Labour has claimed that they now understand that one can be concerned about the level of immigration to certain parts of the country without automatically being a bigot or racist. However, these policies need to be developed further and again play into the issues about Europe. The free movement of people in Europe has its greatest negative effect on working class communities, currently most acute in the East of England and East Midlands.

Labour also need to realise that part of what drives some UKIP and Tory support is simple old fashioned patriotism. Such patriotism may at times blur with xenophobia and racism but there is a large area where one can be patriotic and neither xenophobic nor racist. Labour seem to have had difficulties on this score for years such as the politically idiotic attempt to override Gibraltar’s population’s expressed wishes and cede joint sovereignty to Spain. Once Labour politicians were not remotely afraid of open but not jingoistic patriotism. Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Peter Shore demolished Nicholas Ridley when he tried to propose ceding sovereignty of the Falklands to Argentina. Later during the Falklands War itself Michael Foot supported Thatcher sending the Task force.

In many ways what Labour need to do is lay to rest the ghost of New Labour and realise that Blair’s construct: an economically right wing party which claimed to be “progressive” by adopting socially liberal positions which were frequently of little relevance outside the north London bubble was not the only way by which they won in 1997. Rather although Major was not as bad a Prime Minister as he was at the time portrayed, the reality was that people were sick of the Tories, their government had run its course and any half sensible Labour position would have won. Maybe the 1983 manifesto would have failed but the wholesale dumping of economically left of centre politics was not necessary.

Currently it seems the central or median position of the British population is to the left of the Tories and Lib Dems on economic matters and to their right over social matters including immigration etc. The strange thing is that Labour is in a similar place to the Tories (economically right and socially left of the general population). This has left a considerable space for UKIP which is a highly populist but essentially right wing party. They have managed to latch onto the disconnect between the main parties and the population over social issues and have also given a nod to leftish economic proposals calling for renationalisation of the railways.

There may be few who remember the old fashioned patriotically British socialism of Labour in the third quarter of the twentieth century but that era produced Labour victories as great as Blair’s, and considerably more social change and advancement for working and lower middle class people than Blair’s tainted and superficial premiership.

Labour should want to win the next election partly because political parties should always want to win elections (occasionally one feels that some in Labour almost want to lose to show that only a Blairite agenda can gain them power). Labour should also seek to win because if it can it will be able to demonstrate some truth to Harold Wilson’s inaccurate boast of 50 years ago that it is the “natural party of government” of the UK.

It would also then be able to gain much of the credit for coming out of the recession and allow them to build a recovery which may reduce rather than exacerbate social inequalities. Victory, however, may be more likely to come from a willingness to be radical which ironically means in some ways going back to economically left, socially right wing policies of the past. This is exactly what Blue Labour have repeatedly advocated and despite lip service what the leadership have failed to endorse.