BEHIND the usual thud and blunder of Westminster politics, two stories are being told.
One has to do with a Coalition Government that has failed – demonstrably, by the numbers, on its own criteria – to keep a promise worth the name. The other tale involves the absence of a serious opposition.
Obviously enough, Labour is interested most in the second fable. After all, there could hardly be a better time for an alternative party ready to pick up the pieces. Who couldn't do better – or be more popular, or seem more reasonable – than the David Cameron-Nick Clegg panto horse?
It ought to be easy. Here's a double-dip recession, a squeeze on household incomes, a credit freeze, a boot placed on the neck of the public sector, a rising borrowing requirement, and a young generation dispossessed. Here's a Government so bereft of the basic credentials that its members can't even – as Ed Miliband said in Manchester yesterday – resign properly. Any half-sentient opponent should be primed and ready for power.
If you do not happen to read opinion polls often or well, that's how it seems. Labour has, roughly speaking, a 10% average lead in most of the reputable surveys. Nothing the Coalition has tried to do with the economy has worked. Voters ought to be in the throes of rising up.
But wait a second, then wait a second more. First, 10% counts only as your minimum requirement before the commencement of an average UK General Election campaign. I write as one who almost tripped over John Major's soapbox when "we" all knew he has heading for oblivion. Given the facts of the Coalition's record, nevertheless, Labour ought to be, and need to be, several more streets ahead by now.
Spend another second on that. It's not happening; why not? The Cameron-Clegg panto bovine-joke should encourage you to think that anyone else, policies optional, would be home and dry. The fact remains that Labour is doubted. In some parts, Labour is despised. Some of us even have a tendency, these days, to ridicule the party of Attlee, Bevan and Wilson.
Another second of your time. Why's that? There are two schools of thought. The first is tiny, the second big and absurd. The first cadre reckons that, just possibly, after two and some years of Ed Miliband's leadership, his party might have a few policies that were not the usual political Masterchef: Coalition "with a twist". The second academy believes, in the familiar way, that it's an image thing.
It seems that we – me, you, us – will learn to love Ed if we get to know him better. Once we understand the nature of the man, we will stop asking why he means to keep the Coalition's cuts, and persist with pay freezes, and merely tinker a little – a little house-building, some apprenticeships – with growth. In essence, it's the Barack Obama deal: know him better, trust him more.
For those who have pushed their leader in this direction, I offer just a couple of bits of advice. First, please, seriously, tell the leader to stop addressing me as "friends". The last time I checked, I wasn't a Quaker. I have no need to hear about Mr Miliband's "faith". The country is in a bad way. I don't want to know that Ed cares. I want to know what – exactly – he would do to end the catastrophe. I'm open to persuasion.
Secondly, that conference slogan. Has anyone been fired yet? It encapsulates the entire problem of a party that has been scratching around for a gimmick while a country has been put through the familiar Tory mill. "Rebuilding Britain"? What do you think the Torywriters will say? This: why does it need rebuilding, eh?
Ironically enough, Mr Miliband gave a pretty good speech yesterday. I'm not his friend; I'm not, in fact, "a bloke"; I'm not even a big fan of the father whose name he shames. I think junior has a cloying manner and an absolute ignorance of the society he attempts to address. But I still think that he lives in the hope, as he said, of leaving the world better than he found it.
That's a start. It was once rule one. But Labour, it seems to me, is still infested with the type who believe that if we all have warm feelings about an imaginary friend called "Ed", votes will flow and all will be well. In truth, those days are gone. Mr Miliband understands the fact, I think, but doesn't yet know how to process the intelligence.
What has the leader been suggesting? Big talk in the direction of big banks, but nothing more substantive than a claim that Labour might – such a tiny word – take some action. Big words about the right to work – though he would never call it that – yet nothing to keep the CBI awake at night. A little fairness, a lot of passion: and that's it?
Mr Miliband yesterday made several mentions of his time as a pupil in a comprehensive school. He appeared to think that this would give him some cred among the plebs. He might have enjoyed a spell among my peers, for laughs, but that's a different story. Given his praise for his schooling, I didn't hear the Labour leader say that he would be restoring the comprehensive principle.
He gave the Manchester crowd some things, too, about privatised utilities. He was absolutely right. The "forgotten 50%" – only 50%? – are regarded, cradle to grave, as mere fodder for the next rip-off. But I didn't hear Ed Miliband tell me that the next Labour Government would return rail, for one example, to public ownership.
Why not? That's another of those questions. If it is now demonstrable that the Tory version of existence aids only a very few, why does Labour's reticence persist? Because Ed "needs to be seen as responsible"? In whose eyes?
I give him a last piece of advice. In the eyes of those on whose votes he will stand or fall, another "credible Labour leader" is a friend to no-one. People can sense it, too.
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