Having predicted difficult years ahead for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, almost by default I’m going to have to predict good things for Labour. In terms of voting intention polls and electoral victories they should have a good year, what matters is what they choose to do with the opportunity, to use a well worn metaphor from the past year, will they fix the roof while the sun shines?
Since the election Labour have risen from 30% to around about 40% in the polls, the majority of this increase being at the expense of the collapsing Liberal Democrat vote (there is a small amount of churn between Labour and the Conservatives, but no great shift. The overwhelming majority of people who voted Tory in 2010 would vote Tory again tomorrow).
This means that Labour are narrowly ahead in all the polls just seven months after losing the election, and it will probably get even better next year. The cuts will start to come into play with all the consequential stories of this or that bad thing being attributed to them, further sapping government support. Barring an upset in Oldham, 2011 should be a year of electoral victories for Labour. The polls in Wales suggest a very strong Labour performance there, with the party on the edge of an overall majority. Scottish polling is less regular, but they too suggest a good result for Labour. They should also make good progress in the local elections. All of this suggests Labour should enjoy some healthy leads in national voting intention polls and the way the vote was distributed in the UK at the last election, that should translate into an easy Labour majority if repeated at an election….
But, there probably won’t be an election next year. Labour’s strategy can’t afford to be based upon the assumption that the government will fall early, that the economy will still be up the spout come 2015, nor that the spending cuts will automatically bring public services to the point of total breakdown rather than being adapted to over time (of course, things could end up in utter disaster, but in that case Labour will probably win anyway regardless of what they do).
Being ahead in the polls gives a lot of advantages. The party appears on the up, people take you seriously, and it gives the leader a certain authority to act and take the party with him. Labour need to utilise this time to tackle their underlying problems so they are ready for the next election.
At present Ed Miliband’s authority in the party is uncertain because the majority of Labour’s MPs and members voted for a different leader, who was also perceived as the better leader by the public. Miliband’s current ratings in the polls are lacklustre – he already has a negative approval rating, his brother is still seen as a better option and only 27% of the public think he’s up to the job.
The worst case scenario for Labour is that Ed Miliband is their IDS – little bit awkward looking, vocal mannerism that makes it hard to take him seriously, has the right ideas about reforming the party, but fatally underminded by the fact his MPs never actually wanted him in the first place and never felt any loyalty to him.
I’m inclined to withhold judgement on Miliband so far – he hasn’t made an impression with the public, but that also means he hasn’t made a negative impression yet. Think of the rapid negative perceptions Hague built up immediately, or Michael Howard brought with him to the job. There’s still time for people to warm to Miliband – more importantly, after May 2011 he should have some victories under his belt and that will give him the aura of success. People will think more positively of him as a victor, and it should win him some loyalty amongst his MPs.
I wrote earlier in the year about the problems that resulted in Labour’s defeat in May. Gordon Brown himself had atrocious ratings, their economic record was shot and they were seen as old and tired and out of touch. Gordon Brown is a problem Labour don’t need to worry about of course, but solving the other problems is less easy and in some cases contradictory.
Building an economic reputation in opposition is nigh on impossible. We saw in my post on the Conservatives that 47% of people now think the government are handling the economy badly compared to 40% who think they are doing well. However, ask people if they trust Labour or the Conservatives on the economy and the Tories still come out top.
On this front Labour also need to worry about the narrative the coalition government build around them. In 1997 Labour successfully painted the narrative of Conservative years of boom and bust and chronic underfunding of public services. The Conservatives will want to paint their own narrative of the last Labour government, of reckless spending pushing the country to the verge of bankrupcy, and have had some success in doing so: 60% think Labour haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the economy, 47% that if Labour returned to government they’d put the country into even more debt. Labour can argue with that, try to put forward their case for the last goverment’s economic record…but that conflicts with trying to distance themselves from Gordon Brown and the last Labour government.
How Labour respond to the cuts may be the trickiest. There will be pressure upon Miliband to simply oppose all the cuts and reap the rewards of public unhappiness. This may be superfluous anyway, as the only main opposition party, Labour are going to benefit from public unhappiness at cuts whatever, but it would bring with it its own risks – it can be portrayed as Labour not having their own plan, running away from hard decisions and, worst of all, raises the question of what happens if the cuts work… if the economy comes back on track, and public services don’t collapse?
On one hand, Labour are in opposition and by the time of the next general election the deficit will probably have been addressed. It’s not the opposition’s job to govern, and there’s no point Miliband tying himself into an inevitably tricky policy on a problem that someone else has the unenviable task of solving. On the other hand, if they don’t put forward some sort of coherent stance they will firstly be mocked for it, but more importantly, the government will invent a stance for them. If Labour don’t define themselves, then come the next election the Conservatives will paint the choice as being “the party that took the hard but necessary decisions while Labour suggested nothing” or “the party that took the steps needed to bring the economy back to health, opposed at every step by Labour”. It would fall on fertile ground: if you look again at the YouGov trackers on party image, the Tories have an overwhelming lead (58% to 10%) on the perception that their “leaders are prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions.”
Then there is the fairness agenda, this is the Conservatives’ great weakness. As I wrote in the first of these pieces, polls show people increasingly think the cuts are unfair and many still see the Tories as a party that puts the rich and affluent first. That’s an open door that Labour can push at. However, in order to win Labour need to appeal to middle class and aspirational voters. YouGov polling in August found Labour was seen as being closest to trade unions, to benefit claimants and to immigrants, with comparatively few people seeing them as close to the middle classes or people in the South. In opposing the cuts Labour mustn’t allow themselves to become too closely associated with the benefit recipients losing out from cuts, or the trade unions striking against them (hence, of course, Ed Miliband’s focus on the “squeezed middle”)
Finally Labour have to make themselves seem renewed and relevant again. It will be easy for Labour to say what they are against, trickier to say what they are for.
The short term position for Labour is good, and will get even better next year. It may be that the economy sours and they have an easy ride back to power. If not though, they have an awful lot of hard work to do – Ed Miliband needs to ensure that the relative ease with which the party has re-established a lead in the poll doesn’t lead them to think that it’s in the bag. The good news for Labour is they have the luxury of being able to do all the work from the position of an opinion poll lead.