Mark Steel: Is Ed Miliband's Labour Party prepared to do or say anything at all?

Maybe the shadow cabinet have converted to a branch of Buddhism? The only time they've tried to appear decisive, was when they got into an argument with Unite


Poor Ed Miliband, he couldn’t even come out decisively against an egg being chucked at his head. He looked as if his mind had become so addled from his strategy of refusing to say he’ll reverse what his opponents are doing that he’d say that now the egg was in his hair there’s no point in washing it out. Then he’d issue a statement saying that “the real issue is that up and down the country what hard-working chickens are asking is why our economy continues to fail our shells”.

The Conservatives have noticed this attitude from Labour, which may be one reason they’ve grown more confident lately. At the moment they can announce whatever cuts they like, then dare Ed Miliband to say he’d reverse them, which he never does. George Osborne could lean across to him all day long, tasering the Shadow Cabinet, and Ed Balls would appear on Channel 4 News to say: “We will make clear proposals concerning these measures, as soon as we have fully costed them, but until then we’ll continue to wriggle on the floor screaming and will not be pressured into hasty announcements.”

When the Home Office sent vans around London, covered in messages about illegal immigration, Labour responded by saying nothing. Maybe this is a result of the Shadow Cabinet converting to a branch of Buddhism that preaches, “Treat the venom of the Tory with silence, for his hostile energy will then turn against he who delivered it, exploding his van like a million petals, sending you many per cent up in the polls.”

The only time in recent months Miliband tried to appear decisive was when he got into an argument with Len McCluskey of the Unite union. The Conservatives demanded that Miliband confront him, until the Labour leader ended up making speeches such as, “Right, I’ll tell you what I’ll do with that Len McCluskey. To start with I’ll knee him in the solar plexus, then as he slumps forward I’ll surprise him with an elbow in the throat, they hate that in Unite. It might not be Queensbury Rules but once you’ve compromised the validity of subscription fees in Falkirk there ARE no rules.”

All year, Labour’s plan seems to have been to copy the Government it’s officially in opposition to. If Miliband had been in Italy, in opposition to Berlusconi, he’d have arranged to have himself arrested for fiddling with teenage girls, maybe insisting he was doing it more fairly by phasing the fiddling at a slower rate over the course of two parliaments.

If he was leader of the Muslim Brotherhood he’d conclude that the army’s attacks on demonstrators appeared to be popular with many people, so his strategy would be to stage a demonstration in which his followers would all shoot themselves. So although the Conservatives are the “most disliked party in Britain” according to a poll yesterday, Labour’s message of “Vote Labour, and dislike us instead” might not be as effective as it hopes.

Labour leaders may fear coming across as “soft” on benefits and immigration, but they’re never going to out-run the Conservatives at looking tough on those issues anyway. They could announce they’re going to trump the Home Office van by painting, “Text the name of a Somalian you’d like us to deport” on the side of a zeppelin, but the Tories would get the Red Arrows to write “Send back an Afghani and win a Toyota” in a trail of blue smoke above selected inner cities.

So Labour might do better to confront the central ideas underpinning the Conservative election plans. Whenever they’re asked about the bedroom tax, for example, they could suggest they’d bring in an even more stringent version, to be paid solely by Iain Duncan Smith for having the audacity to support such a measure while he lives rent-free in a multi-bedroom £2m Tudor country mansion. They could propose a van of their own, to tour the City of London with “Stop using offshore accounts and pay a proper amount of tax NOW”, plastered over it.

Because today there’s a dreadful sense around Labour that they’re best saying nothing, as their only hope is that voters will be so fed up with this government they’ll elect Labour because they can’t remember who they are.

Answering the unease of Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham this week, one Shadow Cabinet member said on the radio: “I think we’ve been very clear about our own agenda. We’ve made it clear that we want to take Britain forward.” Well that’s something I suppose. At least they’re clear they’re not planning to take us back to 1700 and infect us all with scurvy. No, it’s forward they want to take us, the radicals.

Many people wonder whether Labour needs a change in their front bench, and if so who would be the right people. But one improvement that might be worth suggesting is anyone. Choose names at random from the population by computer, and put them in top jobs in the Labour Party. Then, when Paxman says, “With us is the shadow spokesman for Work and Pensions – Alf, aged 4. What do you think of these proposed cuts in housing benefit?”, Alf’ll say, “I like snails but I don’t like slugs”, and the voters will think, “At least he knows his own mind, so that’s quite an improvement.”

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