With the election creeping closer, the parties are tooling up for the fight – establishing the messages of their campaigns, generating policy ideas and fund-raising to ensure they can project those messages and ideas to the electorate.
Unfortunately for Ed Miliband, Labour isn’t finding it easy.
The message is, frankly, confused. Is Miliband a radical lefitst or the champion of the middle classes? Is he a force for competence or a man who needs a bib to eat a bacon sandwich? Is he making a break with Labour’s past or is he a defender of the top-down, deficit-growing legacy of their last government?
The policy review is going little better. Jon Cruddas was appointed to run it as a free-thinker who is not afraid to speak his mind – for Miliband, that has now become the problem. Cruddas is smart, and in his leaked remarks to a Compass meeting he acutely pin-pointed his party’s problems:
“We set up independent reviews to rethink social policy, economic policy, democracy, local government — they come up with ideas and they’re just parked, parked. And instead instrumentalised, cynical nuggets of policy to chime with our focus groups and our press strategies and our desire for a top line in terms of the 24-hour media cycle dominate and crowd out any innovation or creativity…The paradox is there is all sorts of creativity alongside a profound dead hand at the centre. I’d love to say why we don’t just appropriate this idea or that idea — but honestly it ain’t going to happen at the moment, even though the clock’s ticking, with a profoundly important general election.”
Evidently Cruddas is finding the policy process frustrating, and that frustration has led him to give what is essentially a brief, painful strategic review of his party’s leadership.
The problem he identifies has the same source as the confusion in the party’s message and tone – at heart, Project Miliband has no clear strategic direction. We hear a lot about “One Nation”, but years of slogan repetition have not brought any idea of what the term means in practice.
What would a “One Nation” Britain look like? How would it feel? What would it think of itself, and how would others view it? What would be its characteristic qualities, its guiding principles, its public policies or its fiscal approach?
No voters know the answers to those questions – and I doubt any Labour MPs could give coherent, plausible answers to them, either. Small wonder that the party’s own policy chief finds his work shunned in favour of “cynical nuggets” and tactical announcements. Without a clear strategy, that’s the only possible outcome.
I wrote in September that this was going to happen – Labour has no strategic direction because they have no single source of leadership or authority. Instead, the Opposition’s command structure is split between the concerns of those who want to appeal to voters and the union paymasters who are more interested in a return to the 1970s. The “dead hand at the centre” which Cruddas finds so stifling is paralysed by these divisions.
With a muddled message and a blunted policy review, both caused by strategic chaos at the top, you might imagine Team Miliband had hit rock-bottom. But you’d be wrong.
As today’s Times summarises, Labour are in financial trouble, too:
‘While Labour planners are hopeful that they will be able to spend more than the £8 million deployed during the 2010 campaign, they have accepted that their funds will be dwarfed by the Tories’ coffers. The Conservatives are expected to reach the maximum £19.5 million that can be spent in the year running up to an election. Senior figures have warned Mr Miliband that by the new year, the Conservatives could be in position to spend three times as much as Labour…
The party is also still paying off huge loans it took out for the 2005 election campaign. Six businessmen who lent Labour £7.5 million are still being repaid, with five of the loans needing to be paid off by the end of September 2015. Meanwhile, the Tories are understood to be debt free for the first time in decades.’
Inevitably, the Opposition are trying to spin this as a David and Goliath fight – claiming that a focus on marginals and digital campaigning will save the day, and moaning about the fact that a Conservative fundraising summer party attracted people with money who were keen to donate. But David and Goliath couldn’t control their respective heights – whereas Labour have only themselves to blame for their money troubles.
The fact is that Miliband’s party is saddled with debts and struggling to raise money because his leadership of it isn’t very good. The Obama campaign famously showed that you don’t need big money donors to raise a lot of cash – but you do need to inspire enthusiasm and confidence. In 2010, Team Miliband were briefing that they would emulate that approach – now they talk as though it could never raise large amounts.
Looking at what Labour currently have to offer, and listening to what Jon Cruddas has to say about the state of the Opposition, it should be no surprise that people don’t want to give money to support it. That isn’t the fault of Tory donors, or tight-fisted Labourites – that’s the fault of a failing Labour leader.
Come the election, CCHQ and Conservative candidates will seek to hammer Labour hard, but despite their efforts, it may well be that the most damaging blows have already been self-inflicted by Ed Miliband. With no clear message, no coherent strategy and precious little money, can the Labour Party really stage a plausible campaign in 2015?