Tuesday 10 January saw the relaunch of the Labour party leader who to our minds was largely unconvincing when interviewed by John Simpson on Radio 4, struggling to dominate the discussion and articulate the narrative that will support his leadership over the coming months and years. Conversely, the ground Miliband has laid out regarding 'responsible capitalism' and executive pay have been jumped upon by Cameron as this obviously chimes with the British public, we await his actions to tackle these issues before passing judgement; our feeling is that talk is cheap. The relaunch evidences Miliband's attempts to reshape the party along lines that are more reflective of the current situation but this is not without difficulty.
Friday the 13th saw the publication of an interview with Ed Balls in the Guardian that seemed to concede the centre ground of British politics to the coalition and in particular the Conservative party with Balls 'accepting the cuts' made thus far. The reaction of many leftist bloggers and tweeters was somewhat predictable and our initial reaction was one of disbelief, not simply in terms of the implications of this shift in approach, but also because of the communications failure within the Labour group for allowing such an apparent 'own-goal' at a time when there are more unemployed than for a generation, vulnerable people struggling under the spectre of welfare reform and the public sector sufferings cuts on a scale never seen before. The Labour position should never be about cuts of this scale to services for the vulnerable. The release of the initial statement could not have done more damage had it been prepared by the current, highly effective, Conservative communications team.
Saturday saw Balls address the Fabian Society's annual conference where he explained the party's position in somewhat different terms; he stated that the party leadership reject the Coalition's approach to managing the financial crisis but acknowledged that Labour will be unable, in the short to medium term, to reverse the spending decisions taken before the General Election in 2015. In a nuanced speech Balls spoke passionately about a desire to rebalance the economy along more just lines and take action to reduce inequality but having to do this from a baseline created by financial mismanagement of Osbourne and the Coalition.
The headlines were, of course, that Labour accept the coalition's cuts, that the Tories were 'right all along', in the short term life at the dispatch box for both Eds will be extremely difficult (ironically between the Guardian interview and the Fabians speech many European countries' credit ratings were downgraded as the negative consequences of austerity take hold). If the strategy is, as we suspect, to redefine the argument about which party is best placed to secure the long-term future of the UK economy and develop policies that will best support individuals and communities from the starting point of the next general election then it may just be tactically justifiable. The problem is that for many traditional Labour voters the move to mirror Tory policy here feels counter intuitive and Labour will have significant problems in articulating this shift to their core vote; this is not helped by the fact they often present as a confused, unco-ordinated party, who are light on policy. Labour has much to say on the economy but the issue is not necessarily one of the substance of their argument, but the way in which the argument is communicated. There is a real need for the party to develop a coherent narrative and to communicate this effectively, if they can do this and continue to reframe the debate on their own terms, based upon clear facts and evidence, there may just be the fledgling steps towards an effective opposition.
For HullRePublic this week has been interesting as we have been contacted by friends and people from the right, asking how we felt now that Labour have accepted that the Conservatives have been right all along. This is not the reality of the Labour position. However, the damage (albeit temporary and self inflicted) has been done to the Labour argument because of the way the message about the economic position has been managed. When something like this recent shift is presented, the easiest and most instinctive position is to criticise the leadership, seek to blame gaps in policy or target frustrations at individual politicians or articles. The reality is that none of that helps the current position, all it does is fuel the frustration, play into the hands of the right and further fragment any coherent strategy against it allowing meanwhile, Rome to burn.
We are not for one second suggesting that we should remain uncritical of any position that is unpalatable or appears to be a compromise too far, not at all; what we are saying is that we need to understand the broader picture and consider the consequences of each action upon the argument as a whole. Above all, not blindly or uncritically, but with coherence and passion, we need to keep the faith.
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