Sir Tony Baldry is the Member of Parliament for North Oxfordshire.
One of my parliamentary colleagues was recently berated for only having given representatives of 38 Degrees in his constituency just 10 minutes of his time and using that to tell them how unrepresentative he considered them to be.
Actually, I think 38 Degrees is rather good news.
On my experience I think that 38 Degrees is going to help the Conservatives win the next General Election. Let me explain how.
Everyone can see the policies that the Conservative Party are pursuing. Policies such as the welfare cap, seeking to reduce immigration, and a clear commitment to re-negotiation and an EU Referendum.
People understand what the Conservative Party in the Coalition Government stands for. They are much less sure about Labour. They are much less sure about what Ed Miliband stands for.
They know that Labour is no longer ‘New Labour’. ‘New Labour’ is dead. But what has replaced it?
Is the Labour Party today a party of:
- New Labour?
- Old Labour?
- A party primarily representing trade unions and the public sector?
- A Social Democratic party?
- Or a coalition of those opposed to any cut whatsoever in public spending or any possible welfare reform?
Labour MPs are rushing around Westminster, desperately trying to find a new way to define Labour. A number are demanding Labour does more to distance the party from the public sector and appeal more to private sector workers.
In the budget debate, Hazel Blears – a leading Blairite – starting talking about the need for Labour to espouse a new “responsible capitalism”. Representatives of various Left-leaning think tanks are falling over themselves to publicly give helpful advice through the letters pages of The Guardian where they assert that:
“The country needs not just a change of Government but a transformative change in direction”
Whatever that means, it means that they are not happy with where Labour is going.
Meanwhile, left-of-centre Labour MPs such as John Mann robustly assert that:
“He [Ed Miliband] needs to speak the language of voters in Bassetlaw not academics in Hampstead”.
It is now very unclear whether in Bassetlaw or Hampstead people know what Labour stands for.
Labour has gone through the last four years simply opposing everything the Government has done without working out what they really are as a party.
People are not going to vote Labour unless they at least understand what Labour stands for.
The recent death of Tony Benn has prompted many to ask: is today’s Labour Party a natural descendent of Benn’s politics? However, as The Economist observed:
“[Benn] was never elected to the Party leadership because his opponents inexplicably disliked his programme of disarmament, import controls, a wealth tax and the handing of more political power to militant shop stewards.”
One Labour MP was overheard saying in the Tea Room;
“There were two people in the Labour Party with the initials TB, one lost us three General Elections, the other won us three General Elections”.
Four years into this Parliament, the Labour Party have opposed every spending cut and every welfare reform. Now, with just over a year before the next General Election, Labour appears to recognise that being in Government often means having to take difficult decisions.
Good government often means taking unpopular decisions. The realisation of this fact now appears to be dawning.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer had barely sat down when the Shadow Chancellor acknowledged that Labour would support the latest welfare cap and as Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Work and Employment Secretary made clear in The Observer:
“We will vote for a cap on welfare spending to keep the overall cost of social security under control”.
Rachel Reeves also used the slightly surprising setting of Any Questions on Friday evening to announce that Labour Party policy would be to support the Government’s pensions reforms.
All of this must be leaving Labour supporters slightly confused as to where their party now stands.
In my constituency, Labour has yet to be able to find a candidate to fight the next General Election. Of their short list of three, one dropped out for work reasons.
It is heavily rumoured in the constituency that the other short-listed candidate dropped out after his wife, who had been running a ‘home to school transport’ campaign, was eviscerated publicly by the leader of the Labour Group on Oxfordshire Country Council, Liz Brighouse. Scrutinising the council’s budget, Cllr Brighouse observed that it was Labour Party policy that all state schools should be equally good and that the Labour Party should not be campaigning for extra money for middle class mothers to send their children where they wanted.
So in Westminster and in the constituencies, Labour has to decide what sort of party it really is and wants to be.
Here is where 38 Degrees helps the Conservatives. The campaign has done two things – firstly, at a local level it has denied the local Labour Party the political leadership on a whole range of initiatives.
It is difficult for local Labour councillors or indeed parliamentary candidates to be seen leading the charge in a campaign against the Government if everybody’s ‘inbox’ is already full with standard e-mails from 38 Degrees on that very issue to send to their MP.
What is the point of a local Labour Party if others are ahead of them in the campaign?
Secondly, because 38 Degrees sends out standard form emails, it has meant that people have not had to work out how these various populist campaigns relate to Labour Party policy and, as importantly, what will the Labour Party do if they came into Government.
I do not think that there has ever been a time since the Second World War when at this point in the electoral cycle the Government and Opposition are running neck and neck in the polls.
For that we have much to thank the Prime Minister and also the Chancellor for the recent Budget. However, we also have to thank 38 Degrees because it has not only emasculated local Labour parties, it has meant that very often neither they nor Labour in parliament have had to work out what the Labour Party really stands for.