It has been odd watching the Labour party over the last 18 months. If ever an opposition has had a golden opportunity, it has surely been this. With the economy in a mess, any government would be forced to make tough, unpopular decisions right now. Combine that with the nature of coalition, and scoring some palpable hits should be a cynch.
Somehow, however, they appear to have missed almost every target in their path. Liam Byrne’s cynical gaffe, leaving a note to his successor about there being ‘no money left’ may not have single handedly lost Labour the next election but it provided the coalition with a frame they could construct the entire economic debate around (and you can bet it will be used as an election poster in 2015). Ed Miliband’s election has been a disaster, not so much because he is a geek (I, for one, have quite a soft spot for politicians who don’t fit the oleaginous Blair-Cameron mould), but because most of his members and MPs voted against him in the leadership election. That shouldn’t have been a problem for a party which is comfortable with its union links in the way that it so often claims; but it palpably isn’t and so it has proven to be a cancer which has riddled Miliband’s leadership ever since. It was striking at the 2010 conference quite how many people expressed how they felt Miliband had ‘stolen’ the leadership.
As a result, Miliband has spent most of his time forced to disappoint his core supporters in an ultimately futile attempt to appease his detractors. It is hard to see how he can ultimately survive. With so little goodwill within the party, every mistake gets exaggerated in a way that a leader with more respect would never have to worry about.
But the simple fact of the matter is that the mistakes have not been few and far between. On public service reform they have been weak, mainly because the coalition have merely expanded upon Labour’s existing programme. Even on health, which is further from Labour’s position than, say, education, they have been shockingly absent from the debate. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can never remember the name of Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary before Andy Burnham’s appointment; that’s his fault, not mine. What is very much Miliband’s fault is that he should have been shipped out as soon as it was clear he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. However weak Clegg may have been initially on standing up to Lansley, it was Labour’s responsibility to provide the main voice of opposition here. It has done precious little, too late.
On welfare reform, again, the government has too often merely picked up Labour’s baton and run with it. Liam Byrne’s comments (him again) earlier this week suggest that, if anything, we will now see them attempt to outflank Cameron from the right. It is frankly unbelievable that the main opposition from George Osborne’s plan to further cut benefits in the autumn statement came from David Laws, the loyallest Lib Dem MP in the Commons, not from the Labour front benches.
This should be a source of despair for Liberal Democrats, who predominantly dedicated to mitigating the worst of the Conservative’s reforms. Our ability to wring concessions from Tory ministers is extremely limited when Labour is absent or, worse, on the opposite side of the debate. And this isn’t merely an issue for welfare reform; we have seen echoes of it in terms of government policy on criminal justice and, of course, AV.
Of course, it isn’t Labour’s job to be helpful to the Lib Dems, but one has to question why they have made it their mission to go for them at the expense of targeting Cameron and Osborne. The thinking within Labour circles is that by weakening the Lib Dems they will destabilise the coalition and thus reap an electoral reward. Yet it hasn’t worked out like that.
No-one can pretend that the Lib Dems are in a strong position; Labour’s mission to portray us as pariahs has been largely successful, mainly because they have been aided and abetted by both our own so-called allies and of course our mistakes. But in focusing on this they have largely left it to the Conservatives to frame the debate on all the big issues of the day. They’ve largely stayed ahead in the polls until recently, but on the single biggest issue, the economy, they have lost ground considerably. No great surprise when that agenda has been left to Balls, an arch monetarist masquerading as a Keynesian, who can’t make his mind up whether to focus on reversing spending cuts, introducing tax cuts or pushing for a stimulus package.
Labour needs to get a grip, fast, and end its obsession with undermining the Lib Dems. The lesson of the last 18 months is that the further down in the polls the Lib Dems become, the stronger the Conservatives get. If they insist on killing off initiatives like Lords reform, it won’t be they who benefit but Cameron who will then be free to carry out his threat of appointing hundreds of new cronies. Triangulating on crime and punishment simply emboldens to Tory backbenchers, gaining Labour nothing.
Of course, it has to be said that the Lib Dems could make it easier. Clegg’s tendency to allow the Labour backbenchers provoke him into anti-Labour tirades has not exactly helped, and during the AV referendum it was positively harmful. Tim Farron too, who sitting outside the government has the freedom to articulate things that ministers must be more discreet over, ought to be attempting to rebuild bridges instead of burning them down in interview after interview.
This isn’t a call for a return to Lib-Labbery, merely equidistance. Now we are in coalition it is more important than ever that we make it clear this is an alliance formed of necessity rather than some fundamental shift in position. Nor is it a paean to some sort of ‘progressive alliance’ – if progressive actually meant anything in practice then there’d be no reason to have two seperate parties and if the last 18 months have taught us anything it is that the ‘we’ll know it when we see it’ definition of progressive simply will not do. What we need more recognition of is that a less destructive relationship with Labour would strengthen the party’s hand in terms of both the coalition now and any coalition talks to come. With Labour and the Lib Dems outnumbering the Conservatives in the Commons, Clegg needn’t be negotiating as a junior partner with just 57 MPs under his belt quite as often as he does.
But ultimately, all Clegg and Farron can do is improve the mood music; it is Labour that needs to revisit its strategy in a more fundamental way. Labour’s approach in 2011 has palpably failed either in terms of opposition or in terms of gaining the party popularity among the electorate, and shows no sign of improving. It is time they looked at a Plan B of their own.