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Crunch time for Labour

I first met Chris Bryant over twenty years ago, when he was working for the Labour Party in Camden, north London. As one of the officers in Frank Dobson’s constituency of Holborn & St Pancras, I remember being quite tickled at the idea we’d chosen to employ an ordained Church of England vicar to organise our campaigns.

Chris was always bright and ambitious. And although he has tripped up once or twice along the way, his rise within the Labour Party has been pretty steady over the years.

Until this week, of course.

One can only hope that the former curate still finds solace in prayer, as his performance as Shadow Minister for Borders and Immigration has left the whole of the Labour Party in need of divine intervention.

In the course of 24 hours, he managed to convince corporations that Labour didn’t understand business and make liberal supporters of the party squirm as he seemed to appropriate the language of the right. At the same time, he confirmed to potential UKIP voters that the British left has nothing coherent to say on the subject of border control. It was a triple whammy of epic proportions.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if Labour were doing better generally. But the runes cast in the past week or two look very ominous indeed. There’s been talk of Ed Miliband reshuffling his shadow cabinet again, which simply draws attention to his own inadequacies as a leader.

Meanwhile, the latest poll from ICM makes desperate reading. Between June and August, the percentage of the population agreeing that the Tories were best trusted to manage the economy has risen from 28% to 40%. Trust in Labour’s economic competence has risen too, but not by nearly as much. And from a much lower base. The Conservatives are, in fact, a full 16% ahead of Labour on this critical indicator.

Don’t be fooled by the headline figures which still put Labour marginally ahead of the Tories in voting intentions. I am prepared to say quite categorically that if Labour continues to lag so far behind the Tories on economic competence, there is no way they will win an election in 2015. Those with long memories will remember Neil Kinnock’s well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous, bids for power in 1987 and 1992. History repeats itself, although probably not quite in the way Karl Marx predicted. The farce was in the 1980s and the tragedy is staring Labour in the face right now.

How can it be that Labour finds itself in such a mess? The ConDem coalition is staggeringly out of touch, scarily ideological, largely incompetent and run by a cabinet of millionaires. Miliband should be making mincemeat of them, surely?

Complacency has been the ruination of Labour in the past three years. They thought that the Coalition would bury itself in the economic quagmire of austerity. And although unemployment didn’t rise quite as high as some analysts had predicted (largely due to phenomena such as an increase in part-time working and the adoption of controversial zero-hours contracts), most of the indicators embarrassed the Tories.

There was the double-dip recession, or at least the appearance of one. No lending from banks to small businesses. Lack of availability of mortgages. Inflation eroding people’s savings and placing extra pressure on families. All Labour needed to do was keep pointing this stuff out and wait for things to get steadily worse.

The problem is that we’ve reached the middle of 2013 and things aren’t getting steadily worse any more. We can’t pretend that everything in the garden is rosy, but most impartial observers agree that are genuine signs of recovery. Record export figures reported. The construction sector showing signs of a pick up. Not to mention that old chestnut of rising house prices. Apparently, they’re now increasing at a level not seen since the halcyon days of 2006.

Of course, the good news may not be sustained. Some of it is froth. God knows another housing bubble is the last thing we need. But there’s no doubting the political death knell that the figures sound for Labour.

Austerity has undoubtedly inhibited growth. My sense, however, is that the UK economy is resilient enough to have weathered the worst of it. The Eurozone – representing about half our export market – has also steadied itself more effectively than many people imagined. Labour cannot win the general election by relying on the Coalition being perceived as an economic failure. The question is whether the politicians who have pursued this mantra are able to find a new theme. Or whether they would have the confidence of the public even if they did.

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