Of all the suspicions that Conservatives might harbour about the Labour Party, perhaps the most profound – and alien to our way of thinking – is that they don’t want to win in May.
Consider the evidence.
For a start, they chose Ed Miliband over his more electable brother. In doing so, they rejected the ‘heir to Blair’ – and thus the anomalous New Labour era in which the party was all about winning elections. Moreover, they also rejected Ed Balls – the heir to Brown, who was the other half of the New Labour formula.
Today’s Labour Party may be ideologically Brownite, but psychologically it lacks the brooding, power-hungry intensity of the man and his acolytes. Team Balls may be something of an exception to the rule, but the standing of the Shadow Chancellor has diminished over the course of this parliament and Yvette Cooper (Mrs Balls) is no longer the unchallenged leader-in-waiting she once appeared to be.
Then there’s the refusal to countenance any sort of coalition with the SNP, which makes you wonder where the majority for a stable, Labour-led government would come from.
Finally, there’s the inexplicable survival of Ed Milband as Labour leader. The polling evidence is abundantly clear – he’s a disaster and the single biggest obstacle to a Labour win. His party’s failure to remove him tells you all you need to know about its appetite for power.
But what explains this office-dodging behaviour? A possible reason can be found in a post on Tim Bale’s blog. It’s about a political trend that he calls “Pasokification”. PASOK – or the Panhellenic Socialist Movement – was for decades the dominant party of the Greek centre-left. It is now a shadow of its former self, barely maintaining a toehold in the Greek parliament.
Though not quite to the same extreme, similar things are happening in other European countries – with the centre-left parties haemorrhaging support to the populist left. Indeed, the Labour Party only has to look to Scotland to see what happens when the centre-left looks like part of the establishment.
Could the same happen in England and Wales? Bale has his doubts:
“Syriza and Podemos have both been able to build on both genuine social movements (as opposed to pathetically transparent front organisations) and a pre-existing far-left milieu that, because it was already relatively well established and supported, had at least a minimum degree of credibility and traction.
“That is a marked contrast with the far left in the UK, which has long been a standing joke, albeit one that takes itself deadly seriously…”
Furthermore, and unlike its continental sister-parties, Labour isn’t perceived as an “agent” for the masters of the Eurozone.
For these reasons, Labour, out-of-office and south-of-the-border, is safe from Pasokification. Taking office, however, is a much riskier proposition:
“…getting into government in May, because it will mean presiding over cuts rather than protesting against them, will undoubtedly make it more vulnerable to home-grown populists on the left as well as on the right.”
It was notable that the Labour response to the Budget last week was all about opposition to cuts that a Labour government would have to make sooner or later (quite possibly sooner).
Bale points out the flaw in this strategy:
“…just because you are not sure you will win does not mean you cannot profitably think about how to avoid the downside risks of doing so.”
I would argue that Labour has thought about the consequences of power, which is why – sub-consciously, at least – they are not only behaving like a party of opposition, but doing everything they can to stay that way.