On Labour’s silence and Cameron’s illusion

Being in opposition is a curious business, one which takes some getting used to. The last time I personally was in such a situation was many years ago in the grey days of Major and it must be said that for many of those days, the Labour party struggled really to qualify as real “opposition”. Back in those days before the economy swelled and then popped; back when my hair grew long and wavy and in my infancy of intellect i would read the Sun newspaper, before that newspaper became a supporter of Labour, or even before the man many would argue Labour has to thank for being in Government at all, John Smith, who would come to rouse both nation and party (it takes such lifting to produce a landslide).

The current Labour party cuts a bitter and silent shadow in opposition. And well they might as a world of phenomenal and cataclysmic events from the World Cup to BP, from Israel to Whitehaven serves only to further diminish their ever dwindling column inches.  What writing is not given in support of the ruling coalition is unlikely to be spared for the quiet opposition at the moment, there’s just too much else going on for the world to read about.

Receiving plenty of attention is David Cameron.  Many, including this writer, poked at Cameron while in opposition for his lack of plan and policy.  Since his entry into Number 10 he has dutifully and sensibly stood by those few comfortable bits and pieces he had pledged to incept.  However this week started the real business of tackling the broken economy and his strategy has been to say that things were worse than he had thought and that as such he has had to re-evaluate his plans.

Ingenious. A ploy I think we have all used in school when caught not doing our homework: “sorry sir, i thought we had to do something else. I’ll do it for next week.”  Whereupon the sharper teacher would of course ask, “well show me what you thought was going on and what you actually did.”  Labour, however, is not playing the part of the sharper teacher at the moment, rather that of the supply teacher, standing in for Mr Smith or Mr Blair or maybe even Mr Brown.

Granted the party is leaderless, but that shouldn’t mean headless.  While the English football team rustles up a new captain because something untoward has happened to the incumbent, we are subjected to a plethora of inches telling us how so-and-so is still a natural leader anyway and the squad is full of them. Surely a political party only just removed from governing one of the world’s most prominent nations can pull together the wherewithal to ask searching yet obvious questions of its opponents.

Instead under the comfortable blanket of much mass media support, once enjoyed by Labour and now taken away, Cameron is allowed to unfurl his plans for massive cuts in full view and make it appear the paradigm of honesty.  For a party that struggled for months and years to put together coherent strategy, it’s difficult to believe that they have evaluated and come with a new plan for the economy in the space of a month without having had the plan for a massive axe hidden in the unprinted part of their manifesto in the first place.

Without strength of opposition in both voice and purpose, Cameron is actually able to unleash these cuts with the air of a man doing us all a favour and worse still for Labour, a man who is only pushing back the previous government’s veil of deceit.

If it could be any worse than that, Cameron recently blamed government spending, the financial services and immigration, three political provocateurs of the highest order and yet Labour’s voice is largely silent.  The Conservatives have yet to outline a solid policy on any of these areas still.  And yet still we hear very little from the red corner.

Opposition is not a time to lick wounds, that time is not afforded; it’s a time to inflict wounds of your own.  Labour doesn’t have the grace of media favour it once did, indeed the party doesn’t have a leader, but permitting the governing coalition to settle they only make the job of opposition more difficult.  There has to be direction, there has to be probing questions, there must be impact and there must be defence of their former government if they believe it can return or even just if they believed in what it was doing in the first place.

By allowing Cameron to blame Britain’s economic failings on Labour for three areas for which he failed to produce a memorable policy his whole time in shadow, Labour will allow him to successfully conjure the illusion that the nation’s problem are indeed all Labour’s fault and that his massive cuts, details of which he declines to release, are indeed just the only viable solution, instead of being the agenda that he’s had in his back pocket the whole time.

On Burnham and opposition

Alistair Darling winces on television noticeably more often from the dislocated position of Shadow Chancellor than he did from the luxurious comfort of No. 11, but it’s not all doom and gloom for Labour and wearers of the red rose nationwide.

Harriet Harman addressed an email to Labour Party members today in which she said:

“I said today in the House of Commons that we will not oppose for the sake of it – that’s not what the public wants.  But we will not pull our punches.  We will be vigilant – to protect jobs and businesses.  We will be determined – to prevent unfairness. And we will speak up for the public services that matter so much.”

It is late in the day to be concerned with what the public wants; such things were to be considered in the years and months leading to the election.  But what’s worse, these are the words of a party well and truly in opposition and it has only been a matter of weeks.  The party representatives, particularly the leadership, must be more driven, more focused on plugging the gaps in both the ruling coalition’s rhetoric and the empty verse spooned out by Labour while in government.

This is not a bad time to be in opposition, if such a fate must befall the Labour Party.  Maurice Greene, former 100m world record holder, always used to say to be #1 you had to train as if you were #2 (look at the Bio, not the open-shirt picture); if you train like #1 you had no place to go.  And Labour undoubtedly did that – complacency was their reward.  The results of the election showed simply that the nation didn’t want Conservative or Liberal Democrat government, but that it didn’t want Labour in charge either.  The problems that existed still do and though time has eased them, as a public we still wait for corrections to be made and no government can sit comfortably until such a time as this happens.

So Labour need change and Andy Burnham has stepped into the leadership race in entirely the correct way.  His speeches bristle with the same intent and purpose as did those of Nick Clegg when making such broad impact during the televised debates.  Burnham approaches the race as if it is incidental to his will to make change, not vice versa, as was the overriding sentiment of the premiership of Gordon Brown.  He talks and acts as a man with an aim and this is what the Labour Party has lacked since the golden days when Tony Blair was popular.  It seems a simple solution to politics that for some reason politicians become more blind to the more seasoned they are; popularity wins votes and what makes politicians popular is to draw close to the people and their needs.

Burnham has critiqued both his party and its policies, closing in on the concerns of the electorate and at once distancing himself from the cobwebs of the last government.  He has time to garner support, if done well, and to build this start into a platform of real substance.  Not much stock was put in Conservative policies before May 6th and should reality unfold the same way, Labour may be in the favourable position of appearing to be the clean-up act to their own mess soon enough.  But what must be avoided are the mistakes of the past.  The whole affair that brought Brown into power reeked of every bad cliché of cronyism that there is; the party must learn, ironically, from Cameron and Clegg and inject life, not just shuffle the same cards and act like the hand is different.

The Miliband brothers, Diane Abbott, Ed Balls; all were senior enough in their own spheres to have had their chance to initiate change from within.  Waiting for the inevitable fall of Brown before stepping from the shadows to take his place, is the same typical tired story of the bland continuance of political mire that strangled the Labour Party government long before any recession did.  It’s not enough anymore.

Ed Miliband reaching the level of internal votes needed to stand for the leadership is all well and good as a start, but alone it is simply a sign of recognition from members of a failed and fallen government that had its chance.  More must be done in order to gain any further ground than that internal recognition and sooner rather than later is the time for them all to realise this if a return to power is truly to be earned.