Saturday, 29 September 2012

Labouring Ahead...

So, after the viscissitudes of the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton, Labour is now gathering for its annual jamboree in Manchester. On the surface, it's a pretty good time to be a Labour supporter - the party is enjoying a substantial opinion poll lead (eleven points with ICM, up to fifteen with MORI) and, with the Coalition floundering, some are now starting to actively contemplate the prospect of Labour returning to power in 2015.

The electoral arithmetic gives them every chance - it took the worst election result since 1983 to see the party reduced to just 255 seats (the Tories went down to 165 seats on a higher vote share in 1997) and the road back to an overall majority doesn't even need (on some calculations) to see the party worse than level terms with the Conservatives.

Nonetheless, with more than half the Parliament to go, there are "doubts" about the party's ability to bounce back so convincingly. Historically, after long periods of Labour Government, the party continues to lose vote share in the election after the one where it loses power. This happened in 1955, February 1974 (when the Conservatives lost more votes but still outpolled Labour) and 1983.

To be fair, when the Conservatives won power in 1951, 1970 and 1979, they did so on the back of a collapse in Liberal support rather than a fall in Labour support. 2010 was rather different - the Conservative vote rose just 3% while the Labour vote fell 7%.

Many in the political blogsphere seem confident in calling 2015 already - yet midway through the last Parliament, the Conservatives had huge opinion poll leads and there was much talk of a Tory landslide.

The problem is that Labour leader Ed Milliband has yet to really strike a chord with the voters in a way that arguably his brother would. No one should dispute his capacity as a political operator and Party leader but does he really have what it takes to be Prime Minister? It is of course difficult for an Opposition leader to schieve the necessary gravitas and it needs a Government in terminal political collapse to provide that assistance.

As I've argued before, both Tony Blair and David Cameron were hugely fortunate to lead their parties when they did facing governing parties who, after long periods in power, were intellectually exhausted and disconnected from the electorate. I suspect Ed Milliband isn't going to be so fortunate in that Cameron, unless the Coalition descends into complete meltdown, will rally the Government on the back of some slightly improved economic numbers in 2013-14.

Milliband has this week to begin to sketch out the face of Labour Britain 2015-2020. We can imagine Labour will inherit an economy continuing to struggle, high unemployment and public finances but what will they actually do to make things better? The vacuum at the heart of Labour's economic policy will become more apparent the longer these questions go unanswered but in their resolution lies the Coalition's opportunity. It's hard to challenge and analyse a party's policies when there are no coherent policies to analyse but as the election approaches, the policy vacuum will become unsupportable.

This week, Labour will need to sketch the outlines of its programme and will face the challenge of scrutiny from the Government parties. It will be the first true test of a Party and a leader that has enjoyed fairly smooth sailing in the past two years.

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