Magazine article The Spectator

Labour's Coming Up on the Rails

Magazine article The Spectator

Labour's Coming Up on the Rails

Article excerpt

Even leaderless and without fresh ideas, Labour has surged in the polls. Think what the party might be able to do with someone - anyone - in charge

The Labour leadership contest has been easy to mock. It has set brother against brother, lasted for months and shown that the party has no heir to Blair.

In private, Labour politicians are frank about the failings of their candidates. When I asked a senior backbencher about who he was endorsing, he replied, 'The least worst one.' Coalition ministers are gleeful about the weaknesses of the field. When I talked to one MP who is close to David Cameron about which of the Milibands he feared most, he laughed before dismissing them both with the jibe once deployed against William Hague - 'weird, weird, weird'.

It is easy to dismiss Labour. Easy - but wrong.

Not even the smuggest Tory MP could have failed to notice that last week the leaderless Labour party was neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in the opinion polls. Its core vote did not disintegrate in the election, and instead held firm enough to deny Cameron a majority. His is not a two term mandate. So the perceived failings of the Milibands might not actually matter much. The new jockey may not be Frankie Dettori, but the Labour horse has more life in it than many think.

Far from being, as it is usually described, the worst job in politics, leader of the opposition might well be the easiest one over the next few years. Whichever Miliband is declared the winner this weekend may be carried straight into 10 Downing Street on the strength of anti-government votes. The new Labour leader will be heading a party that is the sole repository of anti-government sentiment at a time when the government is making £80 billion of spending cuts and introducing £30 billion of tax rises. Not since before the war has a fiscal consolidation of this scale been attempted. The millions who oppose it will have only one national party to turn to.

When the new Labour leader takes his place at the dispatch box, he will do so with 257 MPs behind him. It is a handsome number, a position which only three oppositions have failed to convert into victory since 1884. For all Mr Cameron's skills, he is the most electorally unsuccessful Tory prime minister in history - that is why there are Liberal Democrats in the government.

Labour spent much of the election campaign in third place. Before the poll, it had adopted the brace position. Yet the party survived the election in remarkably good shape. Even though it fought a bad campaign - remember that appearance by the Elvis impersonator? - and was led by a leader who lost all three debates and publicly insulted an elderly voter in the final days of the campaign, its brand did not suffer the kind of damage that the Tory one did in the years up to 1997. Even on election day, Labour was judged the party most likely to have its 'heart in the right place'. Voters had come to doubt Labour's competence, but not its motivations. This gave its attacks potency.

Even now, George Osborne believes that the televised leaders' debates helped the Conservatives because they left Labour with less time to attack their planned cuts.

People were still listening to what Labour was saying.

It is far easier to recover from a reputation of incompetence than it is to shake off one for being nasty. After 1997, the Tories did not draw level with Labour in an opinion poll for more than three years - and even then, it required the fuel protests to put them briefly in the lead.

It took the Labour government three years to see its approval rating head to negative territory. This time, the government already has a net disapproval rating and Labour is already level-pegging with the Tories. With Gordon Brown gone, and the Lib Dems in government, a large number of voters have come home to Labour.

The Conservatives remain very easy to caricature; less than a quarter of voters think it is the party with its 'heart in the right place'. …

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