A recently defeated party, struggling to define a new role for itself in a turbulent and unpredictable political context, elects a new leader. The unexpected victor signals a departure from the hallowed verities of political strategy espoused by the previous generation of leaders and by most heavyweight political commentators. Surrounded in the Shadow Cabinet by supporters of rival candidates, the new leader faces significant headwinds in trying to make the new approach work, and is roundly criticised in the media for failing to make an authoritative impression on the public when contrasted with a confident and agile Prime Minister.
Such was the parlous situation that confronted Margaret Thatcher in 1975-76. The point of this historical excursion is not to suggest that Labour's new leader is a Thatcher in the making; merely that reflection on the early days of her leadership reminds us that snap judgements, the stock in trade of the day-to-day Westminster battle, can be a poor guide to ultimate political outcomes. Ed Miliband has rightly warned against posing a false choice between panic and complacency (Miliband, 2011). Any balanced appreciation of Labour's current position suggests that the glass is half full.
Compared to how unpopular Labour was at the end of its period in government, significant progress has been made. But compared to how unpopular we think the Conservatives ought to be, the position is worrying. This is a government which, we were promised, should by now be the most unpopular in history on account of its frontloaded austerity measures - a programme which has, moreover, been augmented by a series of half-baked and mismanaged policies that have recontaminated the Tory brand and raised serious questions of judgment and competence. But Labour has struggled to gain effective political traction, because its own recent past, and still divisive crises of identity and purpose, have hobbled it in the face of these apparent open goals.
On the fiscal debate, for example, Labour cannot help but appear hesitant and confused - because it was Darling's own plan for cuts 'deeper than Thatcher's' that set the bar for the Coalition (see Richards, 2011), and because today the party remains deeply torn between instinctive opposition to painful and regressive measures and obeisance to definitions of economic 'credibility' that renders them inescapable. 'Too far, too fast' may be the best gloss that can be put on this underlying...