Tom Carty argues that, as we enter election year, the Labour Party is better placed than is generally assumed. It needs to show the courage of its convictions (and some Advent spirit).

The publication this week of the Smith Commission's report was a reminder of the Labour Party's loss of nerve and direction since the latter stages of the Scottish referendum campaign. Hopelessly wrong-footed first by the progressive tenor of the 'Yes' campaign, and then by Cameron's ruthless exploitation of its electoral fears and instinctive constitutional conservatism, Labour has threatened melt down at times.            

This was most dramatically evident in the sudden upsurge of dissatisfaction with the leader (and it was personal, especially when the right-wing press pitched in). In the event, the immediate panic subsided, but the fact that people were apparently seriously prepared to consider dumping  the leader just six months before a general election testifies to the level of volatility. The leadership's overreaction to the 'white van' tweet was one more expression of this malaise.

The uncertainty also shows signs of affecting policy. After articulating a post-New Labour social democratic approach, which reflects the leader's own instincts, the party has recently seemed unsure of its direction. There is talk once more of focus groups. Ed Balls' embrace of the Tories' self-imposed austerity straitjacket, coupled with the ‘symbolic’ freezing of child benefit (far from symbolic to the mothers who will lose out) are not encouraging.

More worrying still, some in the leadership clearly want the party to respond to the rise of UKIP by echoing its rhetoric and aping some of its policies, as demonstrated by the party’s distinctly muted reaction to the government’s announcement of a four-year qualification period for EU migrants' entitlement to in-work benefits, and deportation for those arriving without a job who do not find one within six months. Apart from being morally repulsive and cynical, accepting the logic of UKIP, as the Tories have, is a blind alley for Labour, as we cannot (I hope) compete with them on their ground. The same applies to going along with Cameron's reckless promise of a referendum on continuing membership of the EU.

Anyway, the situation is less threatening than it seems:

First of all and this explains the increasingly desperate tone of the attacks on Labour in the Tory press, the fact is that in England it is the Conservatives who have the greater problems going into election year. Despite the spin put on recent by-election results, Labour retained its seat, while the Tories lost both theirs. UKIP is more of a threat to the Tories than to Labour. Not only will it take seats directly off them, it will hand seats to Labour by splitting the right-wing vote. A UKIP presence in Parliament will encourage Eurosceptic Tories, probably leading to a split in the Conservative Party. 

The prospect of 'English votes' depriving Labour of an effective majority after the election depends on getting legislation through, or at least into the Queen's Speech However, only the Tories want a minimal quick fix which does not address the matter of how England should be governed and how the different parts of the UK are to relate to one another. The Liberal Democrats have long favoured a federal solution. If we are bold we can call the Tories' bluff. Nothing is decided yet.

That leaves the likely loss of seats in Scotland to the SNP. We have to accept that Labour has seemed to many of its voters in Scotland to take them for granted.  Apart from its complacency, the poor performance of Labour-dominated local government, the perceived abandonment of its distinctive values, and the Iraq war are among the factors behind the disenchantment with Labour. If the new leader in Scotland gets off to a good start by recognising and beginning to address failings, the losses next May could turn out to be less dramatic than feared.

If the Labour Party has the courage to go to the people with a programme which addresses the issues which they recognise as needing urgent action, they will respond positively. Above all, this means dealing with the consequences of the systematic assault on the poor and on the fabric of social provision in the name of austerity. We have to be united and focused on winning the election to remedy these injustices. As we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ, we should renew our faith in the light of his unequivocal requirement to serve the poor and the cause of justice.

Tom Carty is the author of' 'The Jesus Reader. The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ' (Columba Press, Dublin 2013). He blogs at 'Seek First the Kingdom’’.





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