A tale of two things from last week, one good, one bad for the Labour Party. I start with the good news. Some research suggests that 71 marginal seats currently held by the Tories contain significant numbers of people who will be adversely affected by the cuts to tax credits. In a week in which former Tory voter Michelle Dorrell wept on Question Time as she laid bare how she felt lied to by the Tories during the election campaign as a direct result of tax credit cuts being implemented since May, that rarest of things in post-May 2015 election politics has occured: the Labour Party have united around something electorally meaningful, while pressure is genuinely applied to the Conservative Party for the first time in a good while.
Now for the bad: Labour pollster James Morris has done what appears to be qualitative research into how Labour is perceived by floating voters. He found four consistent messages came back to him, the last of the four being the most problematic (as James himself concedes):
“As long as whoever’s in power keeps us safe and continues to make our home a better place, I don’t really care what a particular party is saying”
The bad news, I’m afraid, is more significant long-term than the good news. Labour will get lucky here and there this parliament; it happens to even the lamest of oppositions. But whatever the effect of tax credit cuts in marginal constituencies, it is hard to see it electorally helping Labour in a real way as things currently stand. Reason being that, as the last statement cited by James Morris explains, the majority of people are going to see the Tories, however bad they think some of their policies are, as the only possible choice.
It’s the first part of the statement that is so crushing for Corbyn’s Labour, particularly the “keep us safe” – although he obviously didn’t mean to communicate this, the “I’ll never press the button” thing has negated any chance for Labour to assert themselves as a party of safety. But there’s more to it than just that. The statement made me realise in a deeper sense why Labour won three elections in a row – and now seem set to lose three in a row.
Tony Blair managed to convince enough of the nation that he was the only guy who knew what was really going on. And that further, electing the Tories was a huge step into the unknown. The Conservatives helped him by unconsciously playing up to this narrative themselves, with Hague’s moves to the right and IDS’ Back to Basics-lite material. Blair’s story was that he knew what made modern Britain tick – and that the Tories were meanwhile stuck in the dark ages. Sound familiar? It should. Corbyn is basically a left-wing version of Iain Duncan Smith – but even more unelectable.
Essentially, in a post-ideological world, it isn’t surprising that people flee from the overly ideological in favour of the person or people who appear to know what they’re doing. Deeply felt ideology in this context, either left or right-wing in nature, appears to be a framing device meant to obscure incompetence. Throw some visible, actual incompetence into the mix and you have electoral poison.
This can always be turned around – Labour’s fall from grace post-Blair is a case in point. The Tories were able to convince the nation that underneath it all, Labour were just as committed to a programme of socialism as they ever were. This is why Corbyn’s ascension is so potent for the Tories; it demonstrates perfectly the message they’ve been trying to get across all along. “You see? This is the REAL Labour Party. Not Blair and all of that lot, not even Ed Miliband. It is a Leninist, CNDer who wants to reopen the coal mines!”
Labour can take heart from the fact that the programme of cuts the Tories are seeing through will have negative effects for a lot of people. They can be painted as ideologically driven by a competent opposition. We’ll just have to wait until we have one of those again.