Labour’s Best Frenemy

Maybe a 65% top marginal rate of income tax would make us even more popular.


Dan Hodges may have resigned his Labour Party membership last year in protest of the parliamentary party’s opportunistic stance on intervention in Syria, but he still strongly identifies with Labour values – indeed, his Telegraph biography states that he “writes about Labour with tribal loyalty and without reservation”. One would expect no less from the son of my firebreathing local MP, Glenda Jackson. Which makes his scorn for the current Labour leadership and pessimism for their prospects in the 2015 general election all the more compelling.

Of course, one might say that it is perfectly natural for someone who has publicly fallen out with the party hierarchy to publicly root for their demise, and that it is unseemly to trumpet the latest poll results showing Labour’s lead over the Conservative Party almost completely extinguished. But Dan Hodges comes packing precedents, facts and statistics.

First come the simple, time-tested truths:

The party that is seen as being best placed to run the economic affairs of the nation normally wins the election. And at the moment that party is seen to be the Conservative Party. In fact, that party has been seen to be the Conservative Party ever since Labour was ejected from office in 2010. Through rain, through shine, through double-dip (erroneously reported double-dip if you prefer), and through recovery, the Tories have enjoyed a comfortable lead on the economy. The perception that David Cameron and George Osborne are the guys to run the nation’s finances is baked in.

Another issue is leadership. The man who people see as the best suited to be prime minister is usually the one they select as their prime minister. In this case that man is Cameron. From the day Miliband was elected Labour party leader, people have looked at him, and then they’ve looked at Cameron, and they’ve said “David Cameron is the one best suited to running the country”. There has never been a single day when they’ve said “Actually, I think that Ed Miliband is best suited to running the country”. Again, the Tory advantage on leadership is baked in.

Strikes one and two. On economic stewardship, for better or worse, the question is quite settled. George Osborne, for all the many things he has done wrong and key conservative principles on which he has compromised (partly through necessity of coalition and partly through want of a backbone), has still managed to deliver the strongest rate of economic growth since 2007. Meanwhile, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls’ continued shrieking about economic flatlining and living standards (always a lagging indicator) are increasingly coming to sound churlish and divorced from reality.

Hodges also considers the trove of other indicators that are trending in favour of the government at present:

If you think abut it, it’s fairly logical. “So, Bill, I see the economy is growing faster than any of our EU rivals, unemployment is falling, crime is falling, that wave of east European migration didn’t materialise after all, business optimism has returned, wages are rising again, inflation is still low, interest rates are still low, and this lot seem the ones best placed to help the family finances. What are you going to do in the election on Thursday?” “You have to ask? I’m going to kick the bums out.”

The crux of the matter, according to Hodges, is that in order for Labour to win, the British electorate would have to simultaneously break almost all of their recent behavioural precedents and behave in a most unpredictable way, namely:

An opposition party could retain its midterm vote share. A party in power could be ejected after just one term. Even though the economy is improving and unemployment is falling and crime is falling and business optimism is increasing and interest rates are historically low and inflation is historically low and wages are rising in real terms, people could say “It’s time for a change.”

Well, when you put it like that…

It did not have to be this way. As any reader of this blog will know, I am no supporter of the Labour Party, and given the fact that the Conservative-led coalition government is at least making timid steps to roll back the size of the state and tackle government spending, I have no great desire to see things change in this regard. But I also saw a path that Labour could have taken to put themselves in a better position going into the 2015 general election, a path that they conspicuously chose not to take.

This route to potential victory involved making an initial very public mea culpa accepting responsibility for their previous economic mismanagement and unsustainable growth of government (and so drawing a line under it) and a pledge to take deficit reduction at least as seriously as the Tories, followed by a pivot to actually address some of the British public’s legitimate concerns on welfare, on Europe and on government spending. From his recent columns, it is evident that Dan Hodges also saw this potential door back into power, just as it was firmly being pushed shut by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

The Labour Party leadership and allied local party activists who have drunk merrily from the Ed Miliband Kool-Aid since 2010 probably do not like to hear any of this, from someone they no doubt consider a turncoat. But I have a strong premonition that, should the 2015 general election not go Labour’s way, it is the words of Dan Hodges that people will summarise and plagiarise when writing their post-mortems of the Ed Miliband era.

Maybe Dan Hodges isn’t Labour’s worst enemy in their own midst; in fact, he is quite possibly their very best friend at the moment. If only they could see that.

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