Review of Tim Bale’s ‘Five Year Mission’, OUP, Oxford, 2015
In the end, it was mission impossible. Ed Miliband could not take Labour from opposition to Government in five years. This book, completed just before the 2015 election, does much to explain why.
We know that people experienced the biggest fall in living standards since the Second World War. We know that wages have stagnated even as the economy recovered. The Tories forced poorer and younger voters to clean up the mess they did not create while featherbedding the nests of richer, older voters. The pain of austerity was not shared equally and made a mockery of Cameron’s claim that we were all in it together.
It made no difference. Labour was hobbled by public perceptions of economic incompetence. They borrowed too much to spend too much and, in saving the banks, they left the country broke. Liam Byrne’s notorious note about the money having run out did Labour no favours. No wonder Cameron brandished it about during the 2015 campaign; such things make more impact than authors like Joseph Stiglitz, who most voters have not heard of, let alone read. The Tories’ plan to fix the mess seemed to make sense. Austerity was harsh and unfair but the country accepted the Tories’ logic, which had a force and clarity that Labour could not answer.
Thus, Labour objected to the Tories’ move to stop benefit rates rising in line with inflation. This was unfair but since the wages of those in employment were stagnating, supporting any rise in benefits could be seen as ‘rewarding’ the idle while those in work struggled to make ends meet. Perverse and unfair this logic is. But Osborne knew what he was doing when he spoke of the shift worker leaving early for work on a dark morning while their neighbour, living on benefits, was sleeping. The Tories knew that images count more than words – let alone statistical analysis.
Then there was immigration. This is a taboo subject for Labour’s supporters on the liberal-left but not for voters generally. This issue, after the economy, was the second millstone around Labour’s neck; its salience with many of its traditional voters made the matter all the more vexing. Labour could not assure that it wouldn’t open the floodgates once again, if it was to take power.
Against all this, Miliband tried to square various circles: to keep the Party united, and define a new post-Blair party that could inspire its grassroots while reassuring middle England and business; to try and produce policy that could be both fair and allow the country to live within its means; to try and meet voters’ concerns over immigration without resorting to crowd-pleasing xenophobic demagoguery. This led to dithering and dilating, as Miliband and Labour struggled to reconcile irreconcilables. By contrast, the Tories could talk tough on welfare while UKIP could do the same on immigration and sound less mealy-mouthed in the process – and ‘authentic’, in the sense of genuinely reflecting broad public concerns.
Bale’s account is sympathetic of Ed Miliband’s and Labour’s predicaments. As for the great what-if-David-had-been-elected-leader counterfactual, then Bale is dismissive. He doubts that the older brother would have had the answers to the questions above. Indeed, given his reportedly arrogant and aloof manner, he might have actually done more harm than good. Ed at least kept the Labour party united in the aftermath of the 2010 defeat – no mean feat.
For Labour activists, this book is essential reading. It will tell them much about what sort of electoral realities the party is going to have to overcome, if it wants to take power in 2020. It has some depressing lessons to be learned about trying to promote high ideals against the low realities of voter psychology, fanned (but not created) by an unsympathetic press in cahoots with a cynical Tory party machine.
One thing is for sure, whoever takes the Labour helm later this month is going to have their work cut out for them. I hope that they have read this book.