Labour’s attack plan for the summer recess has been to complete a volte-face on last year’s holiday season, when leader Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet up and left to go on their holidays and Ed saw the Tories take momentum in to the autumn. This year Shadow Cabinet Ministers are each being required to give a series of speeches on ‘The Choice’ between Labour and the Conservatives, which are beginning to amount to run of the mill policy re-announcements and cross-briefing across the Shadow Cabinet.
This is not to say that the idea does not have some foundation, as there is much traction to be made through a familiarity with the electorate beyond a party leader and disliked Shadow Chancellor, but endless speeches on a number of sporadic topics has meant that Labour have not managed to grab the news agenda with its announcements. Admittedly not helped by events in Gaza, Ukraine or a certain blonde’s flirtations with a parliamentary seat, Labour figures have failed to really hit home with their speeches so far. A case in point in is Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Rachel Reeves’s speech earlier this week on Labour’s plans for social security, which received so little traction no one noticed until the next day it had been delivered. If Labour can’t set the agenda on one of its own ‘home’ policy areas against the backdrop of four years on benefit cuts and sanctions against the poorest in our society, there really is something amiss.
Even more unhelpfully, the most widely publicised speeches, by Yvette Cooper on domestic violence and Andy Burnham on the future of the NHS, saw both mired in debate over the validity of the Shadow Ministers’ claims on government policy, thus ensuring that audiences missed the messages that they were supposed to be receiving.
And, in the case of Burnham, his arguments for a ‘Death Tax’ (a levy on the value of estates after death) were instantly shot down by his own Shadow Chancellor. If the party cannot agree on the messaging internally, how is it supposed to convince a sceptical public that it has a coherent vision as to how best to steer the good ship United Kingdom? Moreover, many of the speeches have contained vague promises with again little detail. Further, as pointed our recently by Gordon Brown’s former spinner and controversial mouthpiece Damian McBride, ever quick to criticise Miliband, whilst Labour’s policies may gain traction with industry bodies and academics – no surprise given they are driven by a policy review process itself heavily influenced by industry bodies and academics – they are not resonating with the wider public in the way that, say, a sustained economic recovery and promises of tax breaks are likely to.
What this all means is that the party could well be diluting their message before the Party Conference in October, one of the only times that a politicians’ set-piece speech will really resonate with the public, and in terms of the general election campaign the true starting gun that enables the parties and the public to see who has emerged out of the blocks the quickest.
Looking forward to next May, at the moment the Labour Party appears to be jogging along and running through the motions, content with a poll lead which would see it limp to a majority next year. A series of routine speeches concentrating on the difference between them and the Conservatives, as opposed to how exactly Labour plans to go about being in Government, isn’t going to make the public go doolally over Miliband the way it did over Tony Blair. Miliband, and his team, need to get their heads out of the policy quicksand and confidently grasp the direction that they want to take the country in from 2015, if they are to truly convince voters of their credentials when polling takes place in May.