If you're taking part in a debate, it's a good policy not to ask any questions you don't know the answer to.
That’s because debate, like “abate” and their aphaeretic relative “bate” in all its various senses – diminution, strife, rage – ultimately shares a root with “batter”. Debates are for bashing the living daylights out of your opponents, not for establishing the truth, which may be why, having delivered what he no doubt thought was the knockout punch, Pontius Pilate didn’t stay for the answer.
But you and I are above all that sort of sophistry, so perhaps we can approach, in a spirit of honest, humble, Socratic inquiry, one of the urgent questions of our age: why is the Labour party so remarkably useless?
As attentive readers may have guessed, I haven’t generally delivered my vote in the direction of that party, even when it tempted me with Bob Gillespie in Govan. But I’m aware that, for unfathomable reasons, not everyone shares my views, and – in the midst of what we keep being told are “savage cuts” – Labour’s comparative lack of support strikes me as genuinely rather puzzling.
True, the party is ahead in the national opinion polls by five or 10%, but during the “savage cuts” of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s, it was regularly out in front by 20% or more, and it contrived to lose all those elections. For the Holyrood elections, as the Rev Ewan Aitken, Labour’s candidate for Edinburgh Eastern, put it yesterday: “We are not behind but we are not ahead.”
To be neck and neck with the governing party is an alarmingly feeble position for an opposition on the eve of an election but, as party managers must know, it is at least better than the frankly catastrophic showing of Iain Gray in the poll before last week’s STV debate, in which only 7% of respondents identified him as the best candidate for first minister.
No doubt I should be heartened when Scottish voters rank their country’s Tory leader above the leader of its Labour party, but the truth is that I’m baffled. Or at least I was until I saw Mr Gray’s performance, which went some way to explaining it. Tavish Scott was a hole in the air, and managed to be more impressive; Patrick Harvie came out of it better, and he wasn’t even on the programme. But the fault isn’t just Iain Gray’s; Ed Miliband is faring no better south of the Border.
Perhaps the polls are wrong. After all, three days before that Govan by-election in 1988, Labour were on 53% to the Nationalists’ 33%. The platitude of all politicians in the face of poor opinion polls – that the only poll that matters is on election day – has, like most cliches, the virtue of being true.
Nor, though I might wish it otherwise, can it be simple cause and effect derived from that other political cliche which brought Bill Clinton the presidency: “It’s the economy, stupid.” After all, despite Norman Lamont’s efforts, the economy was in pretty good shape by the end of John Major’s government, and it didn’t stop them from getting one of the worst bloody noses in electoral history. It may be more surprising that although Gordon Brown left the economy in the worst condition in living memory, it didn’t lead to a Tory landslide.
But it’s for precisely that reason that one would expect Labour to be in much better electoral shape almost a year on, now that the cuts to public services are beginning to take effect, and when growth remains hesitant. Where, for example, is the surge of support from all those left-wing Liberal Democrats who feel betrayed?
I don’t know, but I suspect that the trouble for the Labour leaders, both at Holyrood and Westminster, is – appropriately enough – the same as the inept debater’s. They have no answer to offer. During his speech at the March for the Alternative, Ed Miliband neglected to say what the alternative was, and Iain Gray has not been much more forthcoming at differentiating Labour’s spending plans from those proposed by the Nationalists.
The public may dislike and fear the cuts being proposed by the Coalition Government, but on the whole they believe in their necessity. They may be sceptical about the SNP’s spending plans, but no competing vision is being offered by the Labour party, other than increasing the rate at which we borrow money. For the “savage cuts”, which amount to just over 3%, will only return us to the spending levels of 2008. We are not paying off our debts, but merely addressing the deficit by slowing the rate at which we are borrowing.
In many ways, the other week’s rally typified the Labour party’s problem. It brought together a large number of people who work in or depend on the public sector to complain noisily (though, I happily concede, almost entirely peacefully) about the level of cuts. But surely few, even among the protestors, would argue that no cuts are required. That irritating chant “No ifs, no buts, no [fill in the name of your special interest group here] cuts” is not an argument.
There are lots of ifs and buts, yet no credible alternative vision is being suggested by Labour, not even an illusory one, such as Tony Blair’s specious “Third Way”. Even with the last government’s expansion of the public sector, the protestors are hugely outnumbered by voters who, for all their worries about public services, acknowledge that we cannot continue dunning taxpayers to expand the state for ever.
Labour’s central support, of course, and the vast majority of its financing, comes from the public sector unions. Gordon Brown attempted to expand the party’s natural support by adding 800,000 people to the public payroll, and by dragging almost everyone he could think of (including families earning £60,000 a year) into the welfare system. That story had a very unhappy ending.
The Labour party has yet to find another political narrative to offer those outside its core constituency. Until it does, it will have trouble in parliamentary constituencies, whether for Holyrood or Westminster.
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