Back in early September, when it became clear Miliband’s attempt to reduce union influence over his party was proving unsuccessful, I wrote a piece about the implications of that failure for Labour’s strategy.
The conclusion was that Labour’s priorities are now divided: the sensible campaigners among them know they need to appeal to voters, but the people holding the purse-strings insist on ideas that are more left wing than voters will accept.
Trying to serve both groups is a recipe for strategic disaster:
“There is an old military maxim: order plus counter-order equals disorder. Thanks to his failure to deal with Labour’s trade union problem, Ed Miliband is about to demonstrate how true that saying is.”
This is the real meaning of Falkirk – as scandalous as the goings-on themselves are, its greater importance is it illustrates vividly how little control Labour have over their own destiny.
Those who say the antics of Stevie Deans constitute a geeky story, and that voters are more interested in real policies, tax rates, the cost of living and so on are in some ways correct, but they miss the point.
Thanks to Len McCluskey’s clout, which he uses to insist Labour adopt policies that are at odds with good political sense, we will see the Opposition increasingly bogged down in a quagmire, unwilling to fully back Len in his struggle against reality and common sense, but unable to reject his demands
Today’s welfare mess is a clear demonstration of this problem.
First someone from the Labour side briefed the Telegraph that Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, is considering adopting an “earn or learn” scheme to be proposed by the IPPR. In common with Labour’s recent attempt at toughening up their welfare line, those who refused to take part would lose their benefits.
So far, a relatively good hit for an Opposition which lags far behind in the welfare polling and which hates its nickname of “the welfare party”.
It fits Reeves’ approach of making herself look tough, too – a few weeks ago she defended the concept that those who refuse work or help should be at risk of losing their payments:
“I wouldn’t backtrack from that headline,” Reeves says. “There must always be conditionality for benefits.”
Only a few hours after the Telegraph published today’s story, though, she is, er, backtracking from the headline.
According to her tweets, “this is not and will not be our policy”.
In short, it’s a car crash. An abortive attempt to sound tough has now become bogged down in retractions, corrections and – oddly – a half-denial of Labour’s existing policy.
This isn’t a sign of incompetence, or foolishness on the part of Reeves. It’s a symptom of that strategic sickness we diagnosed back in September. Order plus counter-order equals disorder.
Rachel Reeves is perhaps its first victim, the unfortunate rope in a tug of war between Labour’s competing priorities, but she won’t be its last.