Labour has had a consistent lead in the polls for three years. Psephological predictions would suggest they are heading for a majority – or at least to be the largest party after the election.
It would not, therefore, be unreasonable to expect the mood at the Labour conference this week to be buoyant. But this does not appear to be the case at all.
Labour activists are unquestionably subdued. Few in Manchester seem to believe that they can win the next election and those that do mumble negatively about minority governments or the prospect of a coalition.
So why the doom and gloom?
Firstly, Labour activists are still taking a battering on the doorstep. A large proportionate of the electorate still blame them for the economic circumstances the country faces. A significant number lost faith during thirteen years of Blair and Brown that the party offered anything meaningfully different to the Conservatives, and are yet to be convinced that this has changed. And some of these voters are now switching to UKIP or the Greens as alternative parties of change.
It is clear in Manchester that UKIP are causing Labour activists particular concern. There are numerous fringe events and training courses dealing with how to tackle the threat they pose. UKIP certainly do have a strategy to target Labour voters and Labour seats. Their conference at the end of this week is being held in Doncaster (Ed Miliband’s seat) for a reason. UKIP are courting Labour’s working class base and making inroads on those Labour has taken for granted. This hurts Labour and it is disproportionately damaging their confidence.
Secondly, a negative core message focused on Tory failure isn’t very inspiring, and after the electrifying Scottish referendum campaign, this strategy – very much on display during the first days of conference- suddenly feels lacking.
The referendum demonstrated very clearly the power of the politics of positivity and change. Labour’s message script, attacking the Tories on the cost of living, low wages, the bedroom tax, and the NHS, feels hollow by comparison. Activists seem to know that a positive vision which chimes with the aspirations of voters is needed and this explains Ed’s attempt today to make a speech that did just that. But Miliband’s failure to capture the public mood today, just as in Scotland, underlines a real challenge for the Labour Party as they head towards the election.
Thirdly, there is no doubt that the Shadow Cabinet have been kept on a tight leash by Ed Balls this conference. Meaningful policy announcements have been few and far between. Strategically this is a choice, recognising the need to establish a sense of fiscal credibility over the need to make an inspiring and potentially expensive offer to voters. But this approach is holding back Shadow Ministers, some of whom have clearly developed bolder ideas about what they would like to achieve, and it is making it difficult to generate a sense that Labour are a government-in-waiting.
Fourthly, Miliband really does remain a problem. Every time he appears on the platform he just seems so awkward and uncomfortable. His speech today wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t his best and it won’t compare well to those of Cameron and Clegg in coming weeks.
Miliband has benefited from extraordinary loyalty and support from his colleagues this conference. It is notable that there hasn’t been any serious talk of leadership change. All have done their very best to talk up the prospect of Ed as Britain’s next Prime Minister. But as an observer it is hard to recognise much credibility in such a claim and rather easier to imagine Labour coming to power despite, rather than because of, their rather peculiar leader.
In summary, Labour knows how to win the next election; it must connect with voters, provide a positive vision that chimes with ordinary aspirations, offer a real sense of choice and demonstrate strong credible leadership. Its problem appears to be one of self-belief and it is this which holds them back from realising the challenges at every level.
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