Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Things can only get flatter. Why are Labour miserable at the prospect of power?

A common observation from an assorted range of journalists is that the Labour conference this week in Manchester has all been a bit flat.  Something largely confirmed by Ed Miliband's disappointing speech yesterday.  On my own part, I've been milling around the conference since Sunday, attending various fringe events in which I've also been observing the mood of the party's MPs and activists.

The journalists, I think, are completely correct in their assessments.  Of the events I've attended, MPs seem completely underwhelmed and unexcited by the prospect of power.  This should be unusual.  They are, after all, talking in genuinely probable terms about how they will plan to change the country in a matter of months.

So, what is going on?  Why is the Labour Party - from its leader to its activists - so unenthused about governing again?  All in all, there are seemingly three things going on.

The first is that, as everyone is now aware, Labour's ability to exercise power will be severely hampered by the fiscal restraints of the next parliament.  In accepting the challenge to eliminate the deficit without significant tax increases, Labour has committed itself to severe spending cuts.  The choice it can thus offer the electorate is a limited one: Labour will shift around the priorities of government but will not, and cannot, significantly shift spending plans.

The second is that, although Labour is close to power, this will be - at best - limp power.  Based upon polling trends, the best case scenario seems to be a tiny majority for Miliband.  A more probable scenario however is a hung parliament, with Labour in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  Personally, I think there might be benefits to working with the Lib Dems - but there is a strong, systematic aversion to a Lib-Lab coalition from many corners of the Labour Party.

Finally, there is the issue of whether Labour is psychologically ready for power.  Political parties are just not used to regaining power so soon after losing it.  Plus, the scale of Labour's general election defeat - and its context, set amidst the death of the economic model the party worked within and advocated for 13 years - means that five years is a short time to complete such a monumental political inquest.

Ed Miliband however has arguably done an impressive job in conducting this inquest - relatively peacefully and quickly.  Yet, it remains unclear what Miliband's Labour stands for.  It accepts the economic terms set by the Conservatives yet aspires to build a new form of capitalism.  It talks of cutting Child Benefit but of a "big offer" on childcare.  Labour finds itself in a position where power is unexpectedly, and perhaps prematurely, within reach.  The question is, does the party really want to grasp it just yet?

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