Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Labour's task just keeps getting harder and harder

Who'd be in Opposition? That should, of course, have been the question faced by power-weary Labour Ministers and MPs as they threw in the towel back in May 2010. One gained the distinct impression at that point that the party was not serious in trying to cling to power, and was just exhausted.

It's happened before. Labour in 1951, and the Tories in 1964 and 1997, were pretty much ready to leave. There comes a time when - physically, mentally, emotionally - a governing party has nothing left to give.

But Opposition can be worse. With no power and not much influence, any party can be overshadowed.

So it's proving at the moment. Labour is slipping backwards in the polls even as the economy stalls. At a time when alternatives to the coalition should be on the table, Labour is being overshadowed. Events have become the party's enemy, rather than its friend. Ex-Labour MPs are prosecuted for multiple counts of fraud. The ex-PM, Gordon Brown, is lambasted for his volcanic temper and (shall we say) questionable working methods after one of his best friends in politics - Alistair Darling - turns on him. Tony Blair is revealed as a godparent of one of (hardly-flavour-of-the-month) Rupert Murdoch's children.

One day the whole era will be seen in a more sober and historically-detached light. But not today.

And all the time, looming on the horizon, is the prospect of a Scottish independence referendum which would remove 41 Labour MPs from the House of Commons. The Conservatives would gain an overnight overall majority without having to lift a finger.

Wily old Alec Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, is beginning to tack towards what political anoraks know as 'devo-max': a maximalist model of devolution that would leave Scotland within the Union, but with tax-raising powers and social security (and almost everything else) devolved. Only defence and the monarchy would probably remain 'reserved powers' at Westminster - a situation in which Scottish MPs would find it much harder than they do, even now, to justify voting on issues which affected only the rest of the UK.

Salmond is doing this because he knows he can win such a referendum - especially while the Conservatives debate a new name (or just giving up and disbanding) and Labour ponder a new Scottish leader. In a multi-option plebiscite, 'do you want to compromise on more powers?' will be almost irresistible to the Scottish electorate.

Meanwhile, Labour will find it well-nigh impossible to win a majority until it becomes a more English, and a more socially conservative, party - in about eight to twelve years from now.

Government was hard. Opposition is harder.

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