John Glen is the Member of Parliament for Salisbury. Follow John on Twitter.
After disappointing performances in mid-term elections there is naturally (and rightly) a period of introspection within the party – what is going wrong, where we need to put things right, and so on. This analysis is always infused with a measure of personality politics – where those who have felt slighted or passed over, ignored, or marginalised are led to present their solutions with potency.
Such sentiments are magnified when the party is not governing on its own. It sometimes seems to many party loyalists as though the Coalition is used as a convenient excuse for an unnecessarily extended list of compromises, with the inevitable suspicion that some of these compromises are ones done under the convenience of the Coalition rather than because of it. Clarifying the calibration of the compromises within the context of the political strength of each Coalition party should deal with these concerns.
Others have written eloquently about the “change of direction” required. For my part, the anxiety I sensed when out campaigning recently was a combination of fatigue with the austerity narrative (understandable but unavoidable) and confusion over how the mission of Government will deliver economic growth – and in what timeframe.
The indications are there that the Queen’s Speech tomorrow will re-invigorate national debate with that sense of purpose. Let’s hope that futile attempts by the junior Coalition partner to “demonstrate influence” on peripheral issues do not distract from the Coalition’s fleshed-out policy agenda to deal with the deficit and inject urgency into the growth agenda.
Completing constitutional reform and demonstrating social progressiveness, though important to a small minority of voters, are not the priorities of the vast majority of hard-pressed working people.
It is in both coalition parties' interests to re-focus on the goal of economic growth and pay down the debt. This will earn both parties the credibility they will need when setting out different, broader agendas for Government in the run up to 2015.
Nevertheless – despite all the headlines of the past five days - the real political opposition is not a different faction of personalities or priorities within the Coalition but the Labour Party.
For my part, I think there are a few causes for optimism outside the febrile world of recent Westminster village speculations around the future direction of the Coalition:
- The Labour leadership problem: last week’s results should give little comfort to Ed Miliband who remains a completely implausible Prime Minister – of the Neil Kinnock variety – doing well enough to stay in post, but not being an attractive premier-in-waiting.
- The Balls vacuum: no one should be complacent about the challenges facing the Government in delivering growth, but the childish way in which Ed Balls seeks to grab a headline without any attempt at constructing a costed, credible economic policy alternative will not do Labour any favours in the white heat of a general election campaign. Despite recent challenges, Labour still remain behind when the electorate are asked who would they most trust on the economy – arguably the key factor in any general election campaign.
- The debt legacy: Labour MPs know their prospects will rely on credible policy alternatives; general elections will not be won through a sequence of opportunistic tactical moves but through a sincere and comprehensive narrative. Such a narrative will be one that recognises what Labour have so far denied, namely the enormous negative impact their extended spending spree had on our economy (over and above global banking crises).
- Divided loyalties: Many Labour MPs do not believe Ed Miliband can lead them to victory – they are going through the motions but they don’t believe in him – if they don’t rate him the country won’t either. It is worth reflecting on the astonishing fact that Liam Byrne MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and head of Labour’s Policy Renewal was so confident in the prospect of electing a Labour government that he was ready to ditch 18 months of work to leave the Commons and stand for Mayor of Birmingham… hardly an endorsement of his Party’s prospects from the man who is responsible for crafting Labour’s messages.
- Confused identity: Labour want to be in favour of welfare reform but they can’t support a cap on benefits in practice. Labour want to be in favour of taxing the rich but they only raised the 50p rate a few weeks before the 2010 General Election and did less than the current government to extract revenues from bankers. Labour want to be the party of the NHS but cut the NHS budget when they are in office in Wales. Such contradictions in the post Blair/Brown world won’t sit easy with an electorate that craves for authentic politics.
Two years into coalition government, last week’s results were not unexpected and lessons must be learnt: core economic policies take time to deliver and this must be done with sincerity, empathy and energy. But before we lose too much heart – remember who we are up against, and remember that general elections will be fought through a different prism…