Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A perplexing comment from Tessa Jowell

You may have seen that The Guardian is running a series on the state of the Labour Party and whether they have any chance at all of winning the next general election. Today, the paper has run a “view from inside the cabinet” piece.

All day, I have been genuinely perplexed by this quote from the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell.

"The Labour governments of the 1950s and 70s ran out of steam. They radiated exhaustion. We are not there. We have the dynamism and energy to take us forward, explaining what we see as the narrative of the future."

Of course, she may have been quoted selectively but Ms Jowell’s comments raise a serious question: what is this “narrative of the future”? And where can we find it? Really, I don't know.

At the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections, I had no trouble pinning down Labour’s narrative. At each of those contests, they had the strongest storyline of all three parties. After all, they won each time, even though in 2005, Labour’s core story, “don’t put the economy at risk”, was defensive and a little thin. Such are the limited options of most governments seeking a third term .

Other (unnamed) ministers in the article seem to acknowledge that Labour’s narrative problems are even bigger this time around.

“But another cabinet minister is more anxious. "We are doing as much as we can on the economy, and David Miliband seems fine on foreign policy, but on domestic policy there is frankly a rather large gap."

A third mainstream member says: "There is a problem. In 2001 and 2005, the electorate were almost saying: 'Why are you bothering us with another mandate? Just go on governing.' This time they will want to know our plans for the future."

It may, of course, be too much to ask any government that has been there for three terms and now faces an economic crisis to come up with “the narrative of the future”. So Labour’s election narrative may amount to a counter-story about the Conservative Party.

The Guardian feature concludes:

It is remarkable how much cabinet ministers say their fate will depend on increasing scrutiny of the Tories. One, close to Brown, says: "How parties respondto this downturn will shape perceptions of political parties for the next 20 years. How the Conservatives responded to the downturn in the 1980s defined them for 20 years. David Cameron can't escape from that perception of the Conservative party. If we get this right and point to where the Conservatives are, that can change people's perspectives."

That’s not much of a ray of hope for an embattled, long-serving administration. Labour will tell many stories about their opponents but people will have their phones off the hook. According to ICM, 69 per cent of voters now say it’s time for a change – which is, of course, the Conservatives’ core narrative.

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