Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 July 2011
Last week could have been worse for Ed Miliband. Labour won a decisive victory in the Inverclyde by-election – and, after the party’s disastrous performance in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, there had been a real danger that it would lose the seat to the rampant Scottish National Party.
But winning Inverclyde was hardly cause for wild Labour celebrations – it was one of the party’s safest seats, after all – and in any case the victory was eclipsed by the Labour leader’s extraordinarily ham-fisted handling of last Thursday’s public sector strikes over pensions.
It was never realistic to expect that Miliband would come out with a ringing endorsement of the day of action: rightly or wrongly, Labour leaders have never taken sides in industrial disputes, and there was no reason to believe this time would be any different. What Miliband could easily have done, however, was the familiar flannel job honed over the years by his predecessors – express sympathy with the workers’ cause, emphasise that they had a right to strike and that it had been their decision to come out, blame the government for the mess and call for negotiations in good faith.
Maybe that was what he was trying to do. What came across, however, was very different – the line that “these strikes are wrong”. No doubt some bright-spark focus-group wallah had told the Labour leader that this would go down well with middle-class target-voters who were annoyed that the day of action meant that they’d had to take a day off work to look after the kids. But at a stroke the phrase put the backs up of a vast swathe of public sector workers who feel, with justification, that they have been forced to take a gigantic pay cut. Miliband seemed to be saying that the prospect of your losing thousands of pounds a year of pension as a result of government diktat matters less than the minor inconvenience of taking a day’s annual leave when you’d rather not.
As if to compound the insult, Miliband repeated it ad nauseam – most ridiculously in a television interview with Damon Green of ITN, in which he robotically answered a string of different questions with the same rehearsed non-answer: "These strikes are wrong... the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner... both sides should put away the rhetoric and get around the negotiating table." The technique has been used for years by politicians who want to get a particular 10-second soundbite on to the TV news but is rarely exposed to public view because broadcasters usually acquiesce in it. This time, however, the full ludicrous exchange was posted by the BBC on its website – apparently without malice – and went viral on the internet.
The “Miliband loop” has effectively nullified more than a year of marketing Ed as somehow different from other politicians – more ordinary, more down-to-earth, someone who “speaks human” as his supporters had it during the leadership contest last year – and has made a laughing stock of Labour’s claims to have learnt the lessons of the over-spun New Labour years. Its full impact is almost certainly yet to be felt. It’s the sort of clip, like that of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea on Brighton beach in October 1983, that is destined to be repeated endlessly. Only it’s worse. Kinnock looked like a bumptious prat. Ed looks like an automaton.
In the meantime, Labour is missing the boat on pensions. The party has failed miserably to counter the popular perception – encouraged by the Tories and their supporters in the press -- that public sector pensions are ridiculously generous and unfairly subsidised by the taxpayer. It has been left to a journalists, economists, policy wonks and the trade unions to point out that the public sector pensions bill is eminently affordable and that the real scandal is that private-sector companies have largely opted out of support for decent occupational pensions. (The bill for this, in the form of means-tested top-up benefits for former private-sector workers without adequate pensions, is of course being met by the taxpayer, but that’s another story.)
Add Labour’s lacklustre response to the government’s idiotic and divisive plans for higher education, its increasingly passive line on spending cuts and its general sense of drift on just about every other area of policy, and it’s difficult to find any grounds for Labour optimism right now. But it could get worse. If Miliband’s “these strikes are wrong” mantra presages an attempt to show the unions who’s boss by introducing symbolically big (but practically inconsequential) changes to the Labour Party constitution to reduce the unions’ formal role, we can look forward to another wasted year of introspection and incoherence. Remember 1992-93 and the battle over OMOV? Oh well. At least it’s nearly time for the holidays.