Is Labour keeping its powder dry or was that all there is?
Like many a football team 2-1 up in a cup tie with ten minutes to go, a cautious defensiveness seems to have settled over the Labour Party, judging by their conference just gone.Â The contrast with last yearâ€™s headline-grabbing energy price freeze policy was stark.Â The big announcements were to increase the minimum wage by about 4p a year more than the average RPI rate for the current parliament, and to adopt a Lib Dem policy from 2010.
Itâ€™s not earth-shattering stuff but then may not need to be.Â Thereâ€™s no need to risk scaring the horses with a big surprise when the present strategy is working well enough.Â Labour no doubt have no desire to risk the mistake the Tories made in 2009-10 when the Conservatives rolled out a series of policies, only for them to be ruthlessly attacking by Labour so that instead of the Blues looking like theyâ€™d captured the agenda, it looked like policy disarray.Â â€˜Steady as she goesâ€™ has its merits.
And yet is all seems desperately unambitious.Â Itâ€™s true that many of the announcements enjoyed public approval but that doesnâ€™t mean they had deep support.Â The public agreed with William Hague over keeping the Pound in 2001. For the moment, that doesnâ€™t matter.Â
Labour appears to believe that simply not being the Conservatives will be enough to secure victory: this week was not about preparing for the election, it was about preparing for government, hence Ed Ballsâ€™ claimed commitment to clearing the deficit.Â
Whether that policy is credible is another matter â€“ the Tories could and should make much of Labourâ€™s spending black holes (but havenâ€™t), but the interesting thing is that Labour chose not to go populist in their last conference before the election.
They may be justified in that confidence.Â As has been frequently pointed out, the combination of LD to Lab switchers and the efficient distribution of Labourâ€™s vote puts them in a very strong starting position.Â Their biggest concern should be holding on to their former core vote â€“ the by-elections in Heywood & Middleton and for the S Yorks PCC post should give some idea of how real that threat is.Â Even so, with Labour less unpopular as a party than the Conservatives, negative campaigning and appealing for tactical votes should also help Miliband.
However, as the Lib Dems have found out, there are limits to how far tactical campaigning can get you.Â It only works if you retain your position as least-worst relevant option and it tends to produce weak support that will rapidly drift off if given a reason for disillusionment.Â A Miliband-led Labour government elected primarily because it wasnâ€™t the Tories could find itself in an extremely weak polling position very quickly â€“ but it would still be a Labour government and that trumps short-term polling any day.
The big question is whether Labour does indeed intend to try and play electoral keep-ball through to May and just take opportunities to hit on the break as they arise.Â As in football, the risk in doing so is thatÂ supporters becomeÂ nervous and that feeling is transmitted to the playing field, while the opposition is handedÂ the initiative and, if they score, the momentum.