You know, my first post of the New Year was supposed to be one on Scottish Labour’s new leader Joanne Lamont, the size of the task ahead of her and the things that she could do in the short, medium and long term to re-position “Scottish” Labour. Except that thanks to Cameron blundering into issues he doesn’t understand, and showing that perhaps the pro-union parties do have the capacity to blow the referendum all by themselves, the first post of the year was about Cameron blundering into issues he doesn’t understand. Oh and the disappearance of Labour from the constitutional debate.
The really disheartening thing about last week was “Scottish” Labour clearly deciding that the default position of defending the Union while blithely belittling the logical next step for Devolution – Fiscal Autonomy – was the route they should continue to make. At a time when the Scottish people needed “Scottish” Labour to stand up for the people and call for a radical half way point, Lamont decided to don a blue suit and side with the Tory Prime Minister, his dark hearted Chancellor and the Lib Dem deputy Prime Minister. At least the Lib Dems supported the concept (dusted down from the history books) of Home Rule – even though they could not instantly define it and described it as “the second class option” – next to Independence.
For Lamont, time is on her side. For her boss, last week was probably the week where a second term for Cameron became an almost certainty (usual caveats - barring something completely left field, etc… etc…). Milliband the Younger has made too many mistakes, and has not shown the necessary leadership skills. The lack of urgency in formulating and promoting a credible and viable alternative to Osborne’s “Scorched Earth” policy was the first indication that Ed didn’t quite have what it takes - this mistake has seen Osborne's policy become conventional wisdom among the voters. His biggest flaw, pre election (and one he shared with his big brother David) was his inability to empathise with the ordinary voter, to connect to the ordinary voter and to communicate to the ordinary voter. Less kind people would call this Milliband’s inability to speak fluent human.
Other than Labour’s standing on the economy, the critical problem for Milliband is his weekly performance at Prime Ministers Questions. In more ways than one, Milliband hit the nail on the head when he started calling Cameron “Flashman” – as Cameron comes across as a public school bully. Milliband’s school swot act can only fail to make an impact against Flashman – occasional performances apart. Apart from the prefect tendencies, Milliband is completely inflexible and unable to think on his feet – Cameron’s “at least we’re not brothers” quip showed that. The thing is Ed Milliband does have the capacity to really get under Camerons’ skin. It’s just that he has failed to do it on a consistent enough basis.
Last week though was supposed to be the big relaunch, the launch of Ed Milliband 2.0. Instead, just as Cameron unwittingly ended the Independence phoney war, then Salmond’s response pretty much put paid to Milliband’s chances of gaining the keys to No 10.
Milliband’s big re-launch was timed to occur on Tuesday, it was planned to focus in on Labour’s perceived Achilles heel of the economy, and to expand on Milliband’s theme of “Responsible Capitalism”. It also continued the reconciliation with Conservative economic policy first laid out in Ed Balls speech to the Labour Conference in September. Admirable though it was, there were several problems with this approach. Firstly, it reveals too much of your own hand too soon before an election. As a result the bits voters respond to the best gets picked up by the other parties and is re-fashioned as their own. Blair was adept at this with John Major’s policy initiatives, while Cameron is already in the process of hi-jacking “Responsible Capitalism”.
Secondly the parts that do not go down well gets brought up ad nausium until election day. Even things that go slightly pear shaped, like Miliband’s late arrival will be peculating itself into the nations subconscious. The last problem is that no matter the amount of planning that goes into these events, they are always at the mercy of “events dear boy, events”. Like for example scheduling a big set piece speech about re-positioning your parties economic policy and then watching a huge constitutional row obliterate any chance your speech had of leading the news. Of course Milliband could have made some comment about the plebiscite row, ensuring visibility and tieing his speech to the news. Except Milliband carried on with his speech, which again relates to the criticism about his inability to think on his feet.
That inability carried on to Prime Ministers Questions, where Milliband made two key blunders, and ones that I think seals his fate. His first three questions were taken up by attacking the rise in rail fares, rises which Cameron pointed out were brought in by the Brown government. Milliband’s considered and not very good response was “You’re Wrong!” I suspect that it was this beating (not helped by bad research) and the previous beating which lead him to his position to stand shoulder to shoulder with Cameron over Salmond’s plan to hold a plebicite on Independence.
The correct stance at that point would have been to question the tactics employed by Cameron while promoting their own support for the Union. Instead Miliband sold Scotland down the river to cover his own shortcomings by agreeing unreservedly with Cameron.
The problem for Labour is that there’s not really an outstanding candidate to take over. Wee Dougie has been performing well as Shadow Foreign Secretary, but his performances have not really been stellar. Jim Murphy has also been performing OK, but I suspect that he may be keeping his powder dry for the aftermath of 2015. While Ed Balls is just a big no. There’s just no argument either for jumping a generation either, with both Umunna and Reeves not ready in any way – and they wouldn’t be in 2015 either. This kind of leaves us with Mrs Balls - Yvette Cooper, and most of the things that apply to her cabinet colleagues apply to her – except there has already been a piece in the Independent arguing the case for Cooper and that she appears to be the current favourite to take over should something happen with Milliband.
The way things are, Labour is going down to defeat in May 2015. History has shown that parties that do not act go down to heavy defeats. History also shows that Labour does not easily learn the lessons of history.