When an arch-Labour loyalist such as Lord Prescott criticises the party leadership, Ed Miliband has cause to be worried. But why is this summer’s outburst of complaints occurring when Labour has a lead over the Conservatives in the opinion polls? The answer is that old refrain – it’s the economy, stupid – but with some interesting twists to it.
The media coverage of Lord Prescott’s complaints concentrated on his football manager analogy. Mr Miliband was Labour’s Alex Ferguson, he said in his Sunday newspaper article, adding: “If shadow cabinet members aren’t pulling their weight, give them the hairdryer treatment and kick ’em out.”
His critique was a little bit more sophisticated than that. It was two-fold. First, that the party’s campaign organisation seems to have melted in this summer’s heat. No shadow cabinet members were obvious, leaving junior spokespeople to do what they could, which was not very much. And in some cases, such as Chris Bryant, junior employment spokesman, it was inept.
Revelations concerning the dreadful impact of the so-called bedroom tax on the disabled and the elderly, which ought to have been a gift to Labour, were a passing rain squall for the government rather than the sustained storm battering it should have been.
The second point, though it was disguised, is that Labour hasn’t got any clear policy ideas. “Radical change is now required to shape up the policy of organisation and delivery alongside a clear set of policies and principles so people know what we stand for,” he wrote.
The implication is quite clear – the “clear set of policies and principles” is missing and people don’t know what Labour stands for. This is much the more serious charge against Mr Miliband because a brilliant organisation and campaign team is pointless without a clear message to deliver. Even worse, Labour MPs, never mind the voters, don’t know what Labour stands for. “I don’t know what our policy on education is, what our policy on health is,” I heard one senior MP say recently.
That is fixable, but MPs are now worried that an advantage is being lost. While Labour leads the Tories in opinion polls by around six percentage points, enough to get a narrow majority, the lead is down from the ten percentage points Labour was enjoying back in March.
Lord Prescott’s point was that the summer, when MPs are on holiday, is when a well-organised party can out-campaign less-organised opponents and increase its standing with the electorate. And since elections are won and lost, not in the six weeks of the campaign itself, but in the months beforehand, the fact that Labour’s lead has nearly been halved this summer is more serious than it seems.
But effective campaigning is only a minor factor in what seems to be a general trend of the coalition government gaining support. Why? Back in the spring, you will recall, the talk was all fearful that Britain was heading for a triple-dip recession, unemployment was rising and austerity was biting hard.
Labour was able to say, quite convincingly, that austerity wasn’t working, despite the fact that the alternative – less austerity – meant an increase in borrowing and a heavier millstone of debt.
Now, however, the economy seems to be recovering, talk of renewed recession has disappeared, unemployment is falling and the impact of austerity doesn’t seem to be as bad as had been forecast.
While the government can be criticised – levels of public sector debt are still rising – confidence is returning. The evidence from rising spending in the shops and increased activity in the housing market says that this feeling is quite widespread. And that’s mainly why the Tories are catching up on Labour in the opinion polls. Labour MPs now fear the political impact of this shift is that Labour is losing any chance it had of winning the 2015 general election. The Tories, they worry, will be able to claim that austerity is working, especially if the private sector’s remarkable record of job creation in the past few years continues to reduce unemployment numbers, despite public sector job cuts.
This would greatly simplify the Conservative election task. It would be just to keep on hammering home the argument that it would be folly to let the Labour authors of the financial and economic crises back into office where they would make a mess of things again.
All this, of course, has implications for Scottish politics and next year’s independence referendum. Conventional political wisdom says that Scottish voters are much more likely to fear the consequences of a Tory general election win in spring 2015 than to welcome it as a majority of English voters may do. This would evidently increase Alex Salmond’s chances of winning the referendum, if only because Alistair Darling’s No campaign needs to show that the UK political system works for Scotland and a Tory government when Scotland has returned a majority of Labour MPs, as in 2010, suggests it is not working.
But is this going to be more, or less, important than the economic debate? If the economy is still improving, if economic growth has returned and unemployment is still falling, which side benefits?
There are arguments on both sides of this question. It could be said that if voters feel generally confident about the economic future, then they are more likely to vote Yes than if they feel uncertain and fearful for their jobs and incomes.
But it could also be said that this renewed confidence is evidence that the UK is back in working order so there is no need to disrupt it.
On balance, and looking at the organisational state of the parties on either side of the Yes/No divide, I reckon Mr Salmond is likely to benefit more than Mr Darling. While the SNP and the Yes camp have suffered from some recent divisions of opinion, notably over the question of a Scottish currency, they still look formidably well-organised.
While the No camp has worked well at the leadership level, the political parties on which it depends seem to have gone on holiday. Lord Prescott’s criticisms of lack of policy clarity and shadow cabinet visibility could be as equally well directed at Johann Lamont and Scottish Labour as at Mr Miliband.
Lord Prescott concluded: “Time is running out. We can still turn it around and win in the second half. But we need the very best team, week in, week out.” Ms Lamont should take that to heart.