Is the Labour party having a nervous breakdown?

Ed Miliband: He's got the diagnoses, but not the treatment
Ed Miliband: He's got the diagnoses, but not the treatment
Ian Dunt By

The same question is being asked in every room of the Labour conference. It's on everyone's lips, from the speakers on the main stage to the fringe events around the city: what do we do about disengagement?

All the parties were stunned by last week's Scottish referendum vote, but Labour was more stunned than most. It wasn't just that it spelt doom for its election prospects in Scotland, although it did. It was more than that. It was the moment the chickens came home to roost for 20 years of free market policies.

Since Tony Blair took over, the party has by-and-large accepted the Conservative view of public services and the free market. When Alex Salmond repeatedly portrayed Alistair Darling as being in bed with the Tories in their second TV debate, the former Labour chancellor could not even argue back. He was left speechless by his own record in office.

Now Labour has realised the cost of its constant appeals to Middle England: it is no longer the anti-establishment party. In Scotland, the race was close because voters did not trust Labour to protect them from the Tories. If they had done, the 'Yes' campaign would never have come so close to victory.


In every fringe meeting and every shadow minister's speech, that realisation hangs in the air like a mist.

Research published this morning by Ipsos Mori showed barely 20% of young adults identify with a political party. Roughly the same percentage say they are certain to vote. The line is flat. There is no sign of it changing.

If the current trend continues, just 24% of the UK population will feel attached to a particular party by 2024. That compares to 51% in 1983.

We know that it's not disinterest. Scotland showed that. There is strong interest and participation in politics, especially issue-based politics. Just not political parties.

In his speech later Ed Miliband will say:

"Strip away all of the sound and fury and what people across England, Scotland and Wales, across every part of the UK, are saying is this country doesn't care about me. Politics doesn't listen. The economy doesn't work. And they are not wrong. They are right. But this Labour party has a plan to put it right."

Miliband's diagnosis is right. It's always been right. He has a very astute and appropriate sense of what is wrong with this country. But he goes on to offer breadcrumbs: A mansion tax on properties over £2 million, which will bring in a pittance. A windfall tax on tobacco companies. Firms getting government contracts forced to offer apprenticeships. Giving employers control over government spending on training funds. New 'gold standard' vocational qualifications. 'Devolving power' to insulate homes. It is as inspiring as a beige carpet.

Perhaps if the party failed to understand the extent of the problems facing the country, it would be justifiable. But to understand the problem and produce solutions so small is unforgivable. There is nothing here to tempt the young back, to give succour to those who turned their back on the party during New Labour, or to give hope to those who have been impoverished by the coalition.

The irony is that Labour's brand remains largely untainted. Unlike the Tories, it is still considered in just-about-positive terms. Surveys of the young find them to be very critical of welfarism, and yet even here they are far more positive towards Labour than they are towards the Tories. The party has still, just about, won the right to be heard.

But what it has to say is simply not very interesting. It is in a state of shock, as if its very identity has been challenged. It has no answer except the same tired old tinkerings it has engaged in for two decades. The exhaustion of the conference is evident. But underneath it there is a sense of aimless fear.

Comments

Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.