Image by Cei Willis, corner graphic by Sam Taylor
Politics without policies is great if you're charismatic, sexy and don't look like a peeled newt, but if you're Ed Miliband, you're going to need some ideas. The first half of 2013 saw Ed bravely trying to float above a policy-free vacuum, supported only by his native wit (a veritable gravel pit of charm) and a wave of Nasty Party nostalgia brought on by Thatcher's death.
But, by the end of the year, Labour had scored a Parliamentary victory over the Tories, stopping the country from bombing Syria and Ed Miliband’s “Cost of living crisis” speech at the party conference set the national political agenda, seeing his popularity surge in the polls. He still doesn’t have much charisma to fall back on, but the perception is that the end of 2013 was good for Labour – as one Westminster insider told me, “everyone’s forgotten about the first half of 2013 because the second half was so good. Everything is perfect except the image of Ed as a geeky dweeb.”
So sure, things are looking up, but Labour aren’t exactly killing it, are they? Conservative tactician Andrew Cooper spent the final hours of 2014, when for some reason he hadn’t been invited to a party, tweeting about how history tells us Labour are nowhere near a dead cert for the next election:
In modern times no party has ever gone on to form a government without at least once being over 50% in the polls. Labour not even close.
— Andrew Cooper (@AndrewCooper__) December 31, 2013
No leader of the opposition has ever gone on to become Prime Minister with ratings anywhere near as bad as Ed Miliband's.
— Andrew Cooper (@AndrewCooper__) December 31, 2013
Weirdly, it took the former star of Big Brother’s Big Mouth to throw down some kind of gauntlet for Labour in 2014. Russell Brand’s essay in the New Statesman and his appearance on Newsnight seemed to cause as much of a stir among the British left as any Miliband speech or policy managed to last year, except perhaps the energy bill cap. The fact that an essay about something as nebulous as a spiritual revolution struck such a chord is surely an indictment of the poverty of Labour’s concrete policies. I actually kind of agree with Brand overall, but if Labour can’t capture the imagination of the people more successfully than somebody who writes crap like, “Biomechanically we are individuals, clearly. On the most obvious frequency of our known sensorial reality we are independent anatomical units,” then they are surely in trouble.
Tom Watson MP (of Noisey fame) speculated that, “The obvious way that Labour can have a very good year is by forcing an election and precipitating an early general election, so that it can put its programme to the people and win. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that that’ll happen but it is unlikely. It just might be that it doesn’t hold together.” In the absence of a collapse of government, the task of the Labour Party in 2014 is to convince people that it would make their lives better in tangible ways. As the Fabian Society think tank’s strategy document, "Labour’s Next Majority" points out, “Thus far, Miliband has mastered the politics of opposition in the sense that everyone knows that he is against what the current government is doing… But on the biggest challenge of convincing voters that Labour can actually make a diﬀerence, Miliband still faces a host of problems from ﬁscal credibility to disillusionment with politics itself.”
Ed seems wise to this – in his new year’s message he said, “People do not want the earth. They would much prefer some very specific promises, specific things about what a government will do… adding up to a programme for how we can change things. It’s clearly costed, it’s credible and it’s real.” The party’s policy to freeze energy prices and stop pensioners freezing in their homes got public support, with 80 percent backing it in a poll for the Independent. Clearly relatable headline grabbers around the “cost of living” narrative would be an easy way to draw voters to the red rose. However, as Watson points out, “The difficulty with an opposition highlighting all their policies very early on is that the good stuff gets adopted by the government and the bad stuff gets picked apart. There’s a tension in the system about not releasing all your policies too soon but making sure people understand the direction of travel.”
I suppose one way to square this circle would be to introduce policies that are both popular and definitely wouldn’t get nicked by the coalition – socialist ones, basically. In one poll, 69 percent wanted energy companies nationalised and in another, 70 percent wanted the end of rail privatisation. Senior Labour tacticians may spit out their coffee, but as Steve Richards noted in the Guardian, “When he chose to be distinctive he almost ruled the country. The next election will be close but Miliband has cause to note the early signs of an ideological sea change: he is at his strongest when he rides the new waves.”
The party’s aim for the next election is to storm to a convincing victory with 40 percent of the vote. The idea is that a seemingly disparate coalition of Labour-till-I-die voters from former mining towns, Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, Aldi Mum, call centre workers, disgruntled students and out-of-work yoot have all taken a beating thanks to austerity and will be united under the banner of “One Nation” Labour. However, the stumbling blocks are obvious when you look at election results maps. We’re not one nation. Politically speaking, we’re two, because almost nobody in the south outside of London votes Labour. Add to this the fact that the Scots could conceivably vote for independence and you see the scale of the problem. Then the “One Nation” of English people that remained would consist of a vast number of southern and rural Tories.
My Westminster insider handed me an internal Labour planning document entitled “Winning the Southern Regions” that, surprisingly, isn't much of a page-turner. The brief notes that, "Voters whose values would tend to lead to a Labour vote in other regions are much less likely to vote Labour in the southern regions." It includes advice on how to win in the south, such as: “Messages to avoid: ‘the North-South divide’ and ‘the Tory South.’" It also advises that: “The term ‘southern Labour’ is useful, but relatively few parts of the three southern regions would identify themselves as ‘the South’. Regional, county or more local identities are stronger… we should explore ways of enabling additional branding at a regional or local level.” (It's a deeply embarrassing read. Sometimes at VICE a new person sends viral animal images to the "All Office" email and everyone cringes for the next 20 minutes. Working for Labour must be like that all day, every day.)
As ever, rumbling in the background of 2014 will be a debate about the very nature of the party. On the one hand, trade unionists have been accused of parachuting their mates into seats as candidates. On the other, a Blairite think tank funded by the millions of Lord Sainsbury, called Progress, has been accused of exactly the same thing, but with slick Oxbridge graduates in nice suits. Ultimately, Labour is trying to redefine itself as a participatory mass movement party, as opposed to a few spads in Westminster backed up by people with a passion for handing out leaflets. According to Ed Miliband, “This is about a message from Brewers Green filtering through the party, in the way we organise, in the way we approach elections, in the way we build policy.”
If they want to achieve this, they will need to use what one Labour blogger [called](http://labourlist.org/2013/10/dear-labours-new-election-team/ ) “human ‘relational’ ways of organising”. (A good start might be to talk like human beings and drop the inverted commas around “relational”.) This may seem like a minor issue but if the aspiration to become a mass party is genuine, it’s important for Labour not to look like sociopaths. Micheline Mason, a 63-year-old disabled pensioner, recently left the party in order to help with Left Unity, a Ken Loach-backed attempt to build a party to the left of Labour. She told me, “I was raised working class and identify as working class. I thought the Labour Party was the party that represented that group of people, but it didn’t look or sound like that to me. I’ve voted Labour all my life and started going to meetings but I have to say I felt very… well, they were all in suits! I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t remember any sense that they were delighted that I was there at all.”
I guess old habits die hard. The Labour Party I have grown up with has been the antithesis of a popular movement. Remember that time they completely ignored the biggest march in British political history? Remember when they sold political influence for cash? Ed Miliband nearly joined a student protest in 2010 – but actually didn't. That stuff disillusioned the protesters and positioned the party firmly within a broad, conservative ideology that every MP is now expected to blindly subscribe to.
Behind the scenes their election strategy team – the “Sunday Group” – includes characters like Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, a perpetual head boy who also runs Peter Mandelson’s Global Counsel group. “For a price [Global Counsel] offers big companies help with ‘public policy and regulatory issues’,” according to Private Eye, who also note that: “How taking cash to help big firms beat regulations qualifies Prosser to help ‘Red’ Ed’s Labour Party distance itself from the big business love-in of the Blair years remains a mystery.” At Labour's heart, an identity crisis remains. If their members were to demand, say, higher taxes on the rich, would Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umana – who said, “We can’t be afraid to say we want to help people make their first million” – be cool with it? Probably not.
Over the last few years of austerity, the big stories of resistance have all been extra-parliamentary – from the heroic and not-so-heroic defeats of the students and Occupy, to small but significant victories like the 3 Cosas campaign. Could 2014 be the year that Labour show they can stick it to the Tories? They aren't blessed with a Clinton, Obama, Kennedy, or even a BoJo. They have an awkward, muppetish leader. Fine. They can live with that. But it makes the need for them to show that they’re different all the more pressing. So far they’ve been hamming up the injustice of the cuts while signing up to the government’s spending plans for 2015 to 2016. They even expelled two councillors from the party for refusing to vote to close a leisure centre that they had made an explicit election promise to save. If they want to have a good year, they could show some balls and call for something with more obvious appeal than the contradictory “responsible capitalism” – possibly political rhetoric's biggest flop of the last few years.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13