Much of the press is rather excitedly reporting that the Conservative Party has a lead over Labour in some opinion polls today, even though the lead is not confirmed by all polls, and is not enough for it to beat Labour in terms of number of seats likely to be won at a general election. That excitement does, of course, only confirm the political bias of much of the UK’s press, but the issue is, nonetheless, of significance for those who campaign on poverty, as I do, rather than those with party political allegiance or membership, which I do not have.
The fact that when real wages have fallen 9% since 2008 and at a time when the economy is still struggling to recover for the benefit of most in the UK, and at a time when so many are suffering the consequences of austerity the leading member of our current coalition government can be in the lead in the polls is quite extraordinary. That is not because of what that says about the record of the government itself. On the economy, on jobs, on earnings, on social security, education, health and so many other issues this government has been disastrous for many people in the country. Opportunity has been lost by many, and hope by a great many more. The continuing curse of mass youth unemployment is evidence enough of that. This lead is, instead, extraordinary because of what it says about the quality of political opposition in this country.
Leave aside for a minute the tactics of the Labour party — including the bizarre decision to issue a party election broadcast that was an extended ad hominem attack on Nick Clegg last week that only succeeded in demonstrating deep insecurity in the Labour leadership and which spectacularly misfired.
Leave aside too the UKIP effect, although without it Labour would be much further behind, without a doubt.
Instead let’s recognise that once the UKIP bubble bursts (as I still think it will, just as the LibDem bubble did before it) we are effectively living in what is still, despite the benefits of so many other parties, in a democracy dominated by two political parties with others occasionally offering pin pricks of discomfort to both.
And then note that both those parties offer remarkably similar policies.
And then you have the answer to three questions. The first is why Labour and Conservatives are neck and neck. The second is why any alternative looks attractive — hence the UKIP bubble that has followed the bubble and demise of the LibDems. Thirdly we then know why so few, and most especially the young, have real interest in voting in this country.
If Labour were to be a real opposition it would oppose. It would present the country with an alternative economic policy. It would have a clear political vision. It would stand up for the interests of, dare I say it, those who seek to sell their labour to earn a living. It would argue for the redistribution of wealth. It would promote full employment. It would be seeking to transform the NHS, and not just argue for a pitifully small investment to coerce GPs to offer appointments within 48 hours. It would be challenging the City. It would be clear on the reform of banking. Its tax policy would be unambiguously progressive. Its stand on tax abuse would be obvious (and where was its front bench on Gary Barlow?). Its willingness to invest in social housing would be as clear as the way it intended to pay for it. PFI would be under challenge. Labour would have an industrial policy. Immigration would be an issue on which it was clear. Its approach to the EU would be unambiguous - and I have no real clue what it is. Flood defences would be high on its list of priorities. Green energy as a source of new employment and for the sake of generations to come would be high on its agenda. Rail nationalisation would have unambiguous backing. I would like to suggest many ideas in my book The Courageous State would be in the Labour manifesto.
But they won’t be. That manifesto will offer gestures, austerity, cuts and a reckless promise to balance the budget which the current government, despite its rhetoric, has gone nowhere near trying to fulfil but which Labour would seek to achieve as a form of neoliberal virility test (and if you doubt me remember what Ken Clarke said of Labour’s commitment to his spending plans in 1997 — which he had no intention of being bound by).
No wonder people have doubt about voting Labour. As an opposition it’s not working. As a party of the left it lacks a great deal of credibility. It is not an alternative. And it has little time left to change that, and what worries me is that as a result those in need of representation may not be heard as a result.
This is a country where too many are dispossessed. Who will represent them if Labour won’t? That’s a question in need of an answer.