As the coalition is approaching its first 100 days in power, many initial sceptics must be bemused at how well it appears to be holding up. Cuts, policy changes and concessions have all been passed with relative ease both with the public and MPs. With talk of a potential ‘deal’ being struck between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives not to challenge each other in certain constituencies after this term, where does this leave the leaderless Labour Party?
If Labour is to legitimately challenge for government the party needs to correct a fundamental issue: trust.
Before policies are set out and a real challenge begins the issue of trust has to be at the forefront of the party. Iraq, unelected PM, promised referenda and a perceived gradual erosion of civil liberties has left a bitter taste. There are two ways in which to start regaining this trust: admission of previous failings and/or having a charismatic and trustworthy leader.
The five candidates for the leadership are Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls and the two Miliband brothers, Ed and David and they all have differing degrees of what Labour needs.
- Diane Abbott will highlight how many policy issues were wrong, tell us that New Labour was just a marketing tool and swing the party decidedly back to the left.
- Andy Burnham will not policy bash previous decisions but will blast the current set up within politics in an attempt to bring the Labour Party ‘back to the people’. He may, however, not be able to command a presence which a leader of the opposition needs.
- Ed Balls is a fighter, will question previous decisions and will admit errors of judgement – to a certain point. What he lacks in charisma he makes up for in determination but he may well be perceived as a ‘bully’.
- Ed Miliband will not attack all of Labour’s previous policies but has an excellent blend of ‘change’ rhetoric with record preserving. He doesn’t, however, instil a large amount of confidence as a leader and has been known to find it difficult making decisions quickly.
- David Miliband is by far the most electable and charismatic contender but will, perhaps, concede fewer past policy decisions than his brother.
It is clear that the Milibands are the favourites. Labour needs to become electable and the Milibands, especially David, do this. Labour needs to break from the previous regime and this will be Ed Balls’ biggest challenge. Pugnacious and a scrapper, it wont be a perceived difference from the Brown years. What also makes the Milibands current favourites is the method of electing the new leader. There are three groups to attract: 1. general members; 2. MPs/MEPs and; 3. Unions. Both Milibands have the support of all three with Ed having a slightly larger union support.
This is not to understate the role of strong and coherent policies. No leader would be able to contend without strong and distinctive policies; where should Labour focus its attention?
For now it is easy to attack the current government’s economic policy of spending cuts as we do not know the final outcome until the cuts are widely implemented next year. If the private sector is able to pick up the slack (and that is a big ‘if’) then job losses will be low and economic growth stable. For now this is an ideological debate which should be kept in reserve.
Foreign policy, including the issue of Iraq/Afghanistan, lost votes not necessarily due to the actual war but rather the erosion of trust. This can be corrected over time, especially if justifications are made and transparency promoted. Again, such issues as trade, Europe and America will be easier to debate once the present government has had more time.
Current education policy is much a continuation of what Blair tried to implement originally while the issue of crime will be another ideological battle: can one be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ with such widespread cuts?
All of the above issues have to be debated and set out if Labour has any chance of getting back into power but these can only be debated if trust is regained. In order to do that there can only be two policies to focus on. If they are strong and coherent then this will allow the Labour Party some time and influence over the debates on other vital topics. Therefore the two policies to focus on have to be civil liberties and immigration.
An erosion of civil liberties (CCTV, ID cards, prisoner detention, stop and search etc) lost many votes and promoted a degree of disillusionment. New Labour’s attempt to make the relationship only between the individual and state through contracts and enforcement wore down the basic civil liberties people had come to expect from Labour. Labour needs and indeed should reclaim this back at the heart of its policy.
Immigration, even if it was a proxy for problems with the amount of housing, low wages and social cohesion etc has driven localised community disenfranchisement. A fairer immigration policy combined with a drive towards localism is the key but whether this is possible with less money available remains to be seen.
Both Ed and David Miliband have the necessary qualities to become leader. If they target civil liberties and immigration and then target the other policy issues over time then the Labour Party has a good chance in five years’ time. Without regaining this initial trust and credibility with the public this leadership challenge in null as another will have to be chosen after the election in 2015.