Labour’s biggest problem is that they’re confused. There’s no direction. The biggest political issues of today, in terms of media coverage at least, are issues over which they too would be behaving rather similarly: housing benefit, as Ed Miliband wrote a manifesto pledging to reform it in a similar way; and student fees, as they set up the Browne review and were opposed to a graduate tax. A YouGov poll this weekend asked whether voters though the various party leaders were doing well in their jobs. A staggering 34% replied “Don’t Know” when it came to Ed Miliband. The people aren’t disagreeing with him, they just don’t know what he thinks.
An example of the policy confusion can be seen over welfare reform. The Opposition began with knee-jerk attacks, until John Healey did a Sky News interview supporting a cap on Housing Benefit, the press realised Ed Miliband’s manifesto contained the commitment, and more extraordinarily remembered how Caroline Flint had proposed to throw the long term unemployed out of their houses altogether when she was Housing Minister – far more extreme than a 10% cut! The decision settled on now seems to be to agree with everything on benefit reform, unless the IFS disagree.
The problem is a lack of a coherent narrative. There isn’t a story to their opposition, an alternative ideal they’re presenting. The most recent party political broadcast didn’t target the cuts or the soon-to-be unemployed, it focused on families earning over £45000 who are going to struggle after losing their Child Benefit. Where does this fit into the narrative?
Research by YouGov this summer showed that the three groups voters associate the Labour Party most strongly with are trade unions, benefit claimants, and immigrants. The Tories were of course most in tune with the rich, but their image problem is all too well documented and undergoing a (slightly slow) transformation.
For Labour to win the next election they need to focus on 2015. To build an image of a Britain they can deliver, that is bound together by coherent policies. They can’t be the Party of “scroungers”, rather of the aggrieved worker struggling out of the recession. To do this they can’t rest on “we’ll look at it”, as Alan Johnson said about a graduate tax this week – you can’t please everybody by saying nothing. Instead Labour need a framework, one which their activists are on board with, that says more than just “we’re not Tory”.