One of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who is called The Long Game. In it, the Doctor unveils a centuries-long plot by the Daleks to conquer Earth. The villainous pepperpot robots are discovered lurking on the edge of the solar system, patiently awaiting the perfect time to strike. When the attack comes, it is sudden and overwhelming. Earth doesn’t stand a chance.
I’ve been thinking about The Long Game a lot since the Budget and Harriet Harman’s decision not to oppose parts of the government’s welfare bill. When does patience cease to be a virtue? How is it possible to know in advance whether the exercise – or yielding – of opposition at a specific point in time will help or hinder your long-term strategy? Are the Tories worse than the Daleks?
Besides that last one (Daleks are worse – obviously – they have disintegrator beams) I haven’t got any answers yet. What I do know is that the 2015 election was not lost in a week, and the outcome of 2020 won’t rest on the actions of the Parliamentary Labour Party last Monday. I also know that Harriet Harman is genuinely seeking to learn from the mistakes of 2010, when Labour allowed the pernicious lie that the global financial crisis was somehow the fault of public spending rather than private avarice to take root and colour the political debate for years to come. This time round, she's striving to avoid the Tory trap.
And I believe she made the right call – though the effectiveness of the action was blunted by some pretty cack-handed party management, not to mention the spin of the four rival leadership candidates.
I believe she was right because Labour just lost an election it should have won at a canter. It’s no good saying “if only Labour had appealed to the millions who didn’t vote” - decisions are made by those who turn up. Nor is it any good saying “we can win without Tory voters.” We can’t. To believe otherwise is not only to ignore common sense, it’s to say Labour should not seek to govern for the whole country. I know hardworking, generous-spirited, community-minded people who did not vote Labour. Some voted Tory. To say Labour shouldn’t reach out to them is to say I should reject my friends, my work colleagues - even members of my own family.
As to those saying Labour would have won if it offered a “true” left-wing alternative, it’s worth imagining how different this Budget would have been had Ed Balls delivered it rather than George Osborne. Tax credits would be saved. The bedroom tax abolished. The 50p tax rate rightfully reinstated. How can anybody on the left dare say Labour isn’t the party of social justice when these were the policies it fought for less than twelve weeks ago?
Yet that Budget wasn’t delivered because we lost. Now the difficult bit is accepting why this happened and winning back public trust. When 11 million people have just told you you’re not up to running the economy, turning around and saying “well sod you then” is not the way forward. Showing some humility is.
It’s also important to remember that right now, there’s nothing Labour can do to stop the Tories. That’s the awful absence of power that opposition foists on a party. In such a position, Labour can either shout and scream at the government now, when its voice won’t be heard by the millions of people now switched off to politics until the next election cycle anyway, or begin the process of carefully, painstakingly, manoeuvring itself to the point where it accurately reflects the consensus of popular opinion. Then, like the Daleks, it can face its enemy and win total victory.
It’s a very Fabian way of working. Remember our motto: “When I Strike, I Strike Hard.”