Why is Labour so far behind in the old nags’ race ?

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Westminster MPs voted against the Assisted Dying Bill for England and Wales today. The Scottish Parliament rejected a similar move last May.
Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

Commentary by Derek Bateman

The Tories are a dozen seats ahead or they’re a handful behind Labour; the polling percentages are neck and neck and everybody knows there cannot be a straight majority for either.

The race is like two old nags stretching for the finishing line, one nose in front one moment, the second inches ahead the next.

Amid the controversy about which will be larger and who will treat with whom, there lies a bigger question – why is Labour so far behind? How could a left-of-centre party be fighting for its life against a stridently right-wing budget-slashing government which is missing every one of its economic targets?

The pious welfare minister who lives a life subsidised by his father-in-law is stripping life-saving benefits from the softest of targets, overseeing a regime which incentivises welfare withdrawal and leads to suicide and foodbanks.

Yet has Labour landed a serious blow on Duncan Smith? Have they harangued him into reversing his cruel policies and made him a figure of contempt – an emblem of a hard-faced, class-war party that must be removed?

The average reading of the late polls before the 1997 election which brought Labour to power last time was Tories 30 per cent, Labour 47 per cent – that’s a lead of more than 50 per cent of the Conservative total. That was because the Tory Party was a busted flush, divided and incestuous, while Labour were appealing, modern and well-led. (I know there’s more to it than that, but that’s my shorthand version).

If you’re Labour looking to replicate – insofar as you can – Blair’s appeal, you might start with analysis of what the Tory-led Coalition is getting wrong. For a start, here’s a list.

Tories have axed 576 Sure Start Centres (evidence);

Bankers’ Bonuses rise by 64% in just 1 year (evidence);

Food Bank usage has grown by 700%+ in 3 years (evidence);

One million are now employed on Zero-Hours Contracts (evidence);

The Disabled have suffered real term cuts of 1.7% this year in benefits (evidence);

52,701 firms have been declared Insolvent, Q2 2010 to Q2 2013 (evidence);

379,968 persons have been declared Insolvent, Q2 2010 to Q2 2013 (evidence);

Unemployment is 20,000+ higher today than May 2010 (evidence);

Private Rental Homes costs £9,084 to rent (£1,128 up from Apr 2010) (evidence);

Tories have axed 5,601 Nurses since May 2010 (evidence);

That’s just the top 10 from a list of 100 Tory failures to be found here.

Is this the kind of stuff you’re hearing from Labour, because I’m not. I hear the eye-glazing economic targets mantra from Ed Balls and a few stand-alone ideas from Miliband – we’ll freeze energy prices (they’re falling anyway) and we’ll abolish the Lords (honest, we mean it this time).

Miliband: Policy vacuum
Miliband: Policy vacuum

But I suspect the reason Labour is so poor at campaigning isn’t just Ed’s freakishness but Labour’s policy vacuum. Just how much of this will Labour undo or where appropriate, reinstate? They do want the bring back the successful Sure Start centres for example but while placing a statutory duty on local authorities, they won’t be offering any funding. ‘The Pre-school Learning Alliance welcomed the initiative but dismissed Labour’s suggestion that it could be implemented without any additional public spending.’

On bankers’ bonuses there are similar noises. Ed Balls wants bonuses to be clawed back for 10 years in cases of misconduct – rather than the current seven. Mmm…not very radical, is it? We’ll chase you for longer but only if you’re found guilty of something.

They complain about zero hours contracts yet their own local councils implement them. And so on…
Labour lacks a definitive narrative challenging the basis of the Tory policy framework partly because it knows many aspiring voters side with the Tories and partly because it has locked itself into the austerity mentality which limits spending in popular areas.

It isn’t just Miliband who doesn’t wash with the voters. The other one, Balls is a reminder of dodgy economics and bluster from the Gordon Brown era and should have been dumped long ago.

The conditions are different from 97 but on the other hand, Major was struggling with an internal enemy (Europe) while Cameron wrestles with an internal enemy (Europe) in the form of UKIP. After 18 years we were perhaps just sick of the Tories and wanted a change.

Cameron: Is he going to win without Labour laying a glove on him?
Cameron: Is he really going to win without Labour laying a glove on him?

I’m sick of them again but it looks like a large number of English folk are happy with them and it’s not just the middle class in the south-east. A man delivered a car to my house last week from Wolverhampton – a working class bloke doing a low-paid job. He was unabashed to say he preferred Cameron’s Tories to Labour.

Instead of hearing narrow-minded Labour MPs moaning about no deals with Nationalists, we should be hearing them explaining why after five years of a neo-con, ideological government, they aren’t miles ahead in the polls and destined to win outright. They should be hammering the Tories the way the Tories are hammering the vulnerable.

The truth of that is that they don’t have ideas and they don’t have conviction. They are afraid to be who the people want them to be. They are trapped pandering to two audiences and have no clear path to power of programme for government. As in Scotland, the strongest message is: We’re not the Tories. But that only takes you half way to power. Defining what Labour IS seems beyond them and instead others do it for them and are not charitable.

That Labour is neck and neck with a discredited party is an historic condemnation of their failure.

Personally, I don’t think they’ll need the SNP because I expect the Tories to be the biggest party. I expect there to be nearly enough Lib Dems to continue the Coalition but still in need of extra insurance probably with the DUP. Labour will be the party that couldn’t protect working people from the ravages of Tory austerity while the rich get richer.