Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Man Who Wasn't There

As I was going up the stairs
I saw a man who wasn’t there;
He wasn’t there again today...

While the usual suspects on the Eurosceptic right (Simon Heffer, Norman Tebbit et al) continued to demonstrate that they haven't quite got the hang of this coalition business, and as the government took its collective sledgehammer to some backbench nuts, there was a missing voice in the coverage of this week's debate about a possible EU referendum.

It happened again on the BBC's Question Time this evening. The panel comprised a Tory cabinet minister, a Tory peer, a Lib Dem and the leader of the UKIP. Oh, and there was a Labour MP as well. But she had nothing to say.

Where exactly is the Labour Party these days? I know that it had problems after the election, when Gordon Brown disappeared in a puff of sulk and the media decided that the coalition was a much more interesting story, but that was last year. It really should be making a bit more of the running by now.

Admittedly Labour is ahead in the opinion polls. But not by much. And the gap was wider during the summer (six to eight percentage points) than it has been over the last month or so (three to five points). Or to put it another way, the party was doing better when all the politicians were on holiday and there was an absence of debate.

Which does seem to be the problem. It feels as though Labour has a lead in the polls simply because they exist and aren't in the government. And as long as no one listens to a word they say, they'll stumble along as a protest option. But while the government is obviously unpopular - how could it not be? - that's not going to be enough.

Around this stage of the first government of Margaret Thatcher, when she was also pursuing unpopular economic policies, the Labour Party was touching 50 per cent in the polls, not the 40 to 42 per cent that it's stuck on now. Even in the early days of Michael Foot's leadership, the party had a massive lead in the polls.

The truth is that polls at this point aren't of any significance. What's important is trying to seize some kind of control of the agenda. And Ed Miliband's Labour Party is doing nothing of the kind.

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