6 Jan 2012

Not a good week, or month, for Labour

First came the comments on Wednesday from Ed Miliband‘s former adviser, Lord (Maurice) Glasman about the Labour leader having “no strategy, no narrative and little energy”. And a lot more unhelpful material which chimed with what many Labour MPs are saying privately (though ironically most Labour MPs have little time for Glasman and many think he’s reactionary and bonkers).

Incidentally, the Guardian today seems a little confused over Glasman’s role vis-a-vis Miliband. On page one Nick Watt describes him as Miliband’s “intellectual guru”, whilst on page 32 the commentator Martin Kettle says that “Lord Glasman may not be, as he is often dubbed, Ed Miliband’s intellectual guru”.

The answer, in my view, is that until last spring, when he made some startling comments on immigration, Glasman certainly was important to Miliband and could definitely have been called an adviser (albeit unpaid), though I’d hesitate about using the word “guru”, which is a bit of a cliché.

Then yesterday we had Diane Abbott’s tweet saying that “white people love playing divide and rule”, which led to accusations that she was being racist, and a grovelling apology forced on her by Ed Miliband.

Today we have the Guardian story about Labour’s defence spokesman Jim Murphy saying he rejects “shallow and temporary populism,” is opposing all spending cuts and that Labour needs to achieve “credibility” on spending. This has been interpreted as a coded criticism of the Miliband and Balls economic strategy. In reality neither Balls nor Miliband could or would disagree with what Murphy says, since neither man believes in opposing all cuts.

But it’s no secret that Jim Murphy isn’t entirely comfortable with the current approach (he did run David Milband’s leadership campaign).

All that against the background of a significant shift in the polls since last month, with Labour losing the small, steady leads it held for most of 2011 (though the party had a positive swing in the Feltham by-election).

Labour’s other problem this week is that the party’s big guns seem to have been absent from the battlefield at a time when yesterday and today both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been very visible at all sorts of events, pronouncing widely on economic and health issues. And both men have been given long interviews on the BBC Today programme.

We’ve heard little, in contrast, from Labour’s big guns, and it’s been left to the young Turks, Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves to do the broadcast interviews.

We will have to wait till tomorrow or Monday for Ed Miliband’s Today interview. But the series of three New Year interviews illustrates a problem which Labour knows it has failed to grasp. Is it right that broadcasters have two “government” interviews and one “opposition” interview in this way, just as they used to before the Coalition was formed? In Parliament the rules are rather different and the Speaker effectively allows the opposition as many interventions as the coalition parties combined.

With the economy in such a precarious position, 2012 ought to offer huge possibilities for Labour. That’s hard when, as Lord Glasman says, Labour isn’t getting its message across, and isn’t even sure what its economic message should be.

But there is some good news for Labour. First the fact that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg seem to acknowledge the need to encourage responsible business behaviour – a big Miliband theme. The second is last night’s ComRes poll for ITN in which 58 per cent of those questioned thought the government should scale back the cuts if the economy doesn’t pick up soon. Which is also what Labour says.