Three polls came out yesterday showing Labour 10-11 points ahead in the polls. The Tories are as low in the polls as they have been since the formation of the coalition government. The government’s credibility is in free-fall. For the first time in one of those polls, Osborne and Balls are neck-and neck for who could best manage the economy. Meanwhile the budget debates stumble on, each week seemingly bringing a new issue arising from it. First it was grannies, then pasties and now charities.
It is quite clear that the government are in a complete mess. David Cameron’s charm has got him so far and no further. His lack of application, first brutally exposed by the NHS Bill debacle, is coming home to roost. The now consistent narrative from all corners is that No 10 needs to get a grip and fast.
Equally the strategic genius that is George Osborne has been cruelly exposed. The man that was widely hailed for the strategy that couldn’t quite beat Labour, is now being questioned by his party. The 2012 budget has seen a shift in the narrative, and perhaps the Tory luck is starting to run out. Meanwhile, as I predicted Cameron’s veto that never was has caused him long term damage, with a newly confident UKIP on the march and peeling away his voters to the right. Rumour has it some MPs may even leap.
So it will be in very different circumstances that the government approach the Queen’s Speech this year. We know there won’t be a second coalition agreement so it’s unlikely the government will be putting before us quite as radical a set of proposals as was in the first Queen’s speech. The government need to do two things which are diametrically opposed. First, they need to reassure a now restless nation, and they need a game-changer to make people look anew. This programme of bills will not be received in the uncritical media honeymoon that the last Queen’s speech enjoyed. We’re returning, slowly but surely, to a more balanced media scrutiny of government.
So the government are widely seen as incompetent and Labour are ahead in the polls. Time to relax, right? Well, of course not. Scotland last year and Bradford West this year have shown Labour just how dangerous complacency can be. Balls may now be on a par with Osborne in the competency stakes, but that’s because Osborne’s numbers have dropped. Labour and the Conservatives are now seen to be as bad as each other. Which isn’t good enough. I know it won’t be good enough for the Eds.
The principle reason that being judged through the prism of this government’s competence will not be enough is that it still allows the Tories to frame the debate. The fact that they are implementing their theory of government badly should not be allowed to cloud the fact that their theory of government is proving to be wrong. If all we do is show the Tories us for mismanaging their cuts to the state without proving why those cuts are ideologically wrong, we are still playing on Tory terms.
Voting is a complex action that has many drivers. Voters being driven away from one party do not necessarily fall into the arms of another party. As Labour found out, of the five million votes it lost between 1997 and 2010, only 1 million went to the Tories. If there isn’t an inspiring tale as to why voters should come out of their homes, trudge to the polling station and vote for us at the next election, we will lose. Simply offering them slicker management of the Tory programme of government will not be enough.
We saw in 1997 in the UK and 2008 in the USA that voters elect left-of-centre governments when there is a sense of optimism about them. Labour in 1997 didn’t promise the earth, but it did imbue a sense that things would get better. Obama gave himself considerable wiggle room on the economy and has been rewarded for the actions he has taken with better growth and lowering unemployment.
Labour can’t promise the earth in the present circumstances either. But they have to convince voters not just that they would manage things more competently, but that their solutions for the economy are better long term, stable solutions. That’s the real goal.