Mark Steel: What do we want? More of the same!

Labour might as well have their policy unit run by an expert strategist from 1793

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Now that parties supporting cuts are losing elections across Europe, I wonder if the Labour Party will consider a policy of opposing cuts. At the moment, they sort of oppose them, so if the Government announces 200 libraries are closing next Wednesday morning, Labour says: "This is typical of this callous administration. They ought to wait until the afternoon." Their slogan seems to be "We agree there have to be cuts but they're doing it too fast", which isn't likely to galvanise people. That's why there's never been a demonstration where people have chanted: "What do we want? What they're already doing anyway. When do we want it? Over a slightly lengthier period."

Even after their success in the local elections, whenever a Labour leader is asked what they would do instead of cuts, they say: "We wouldn't have done it in the same way as this." They should at least be specific, and say something like: "Instead of making haphazard cuts, we would make them in alphabetical order. So we'd start with antenatal clinics and work our way through to zoos and that way, we'd all know where we were."

They fear making any promise that could be portrayed as too socialist, but the French have just elected a President on a programme that Labour leaders would dismiss as making it impossible to ever win again. If they were in France on election day, Ed Balls and Harriet Harman would have been yelling: "Don't all vote for François Hollande, you idiots. Can't you see he's unelectable?"

They still seem frozen with fear because of how they lost in 1992, when the Tories claimed that Labour would rob everyone in tax. But they don't appear to have noticed that was 20 years ago, and ideas have changed. They might as well have their policy unit run by an expert strategist from 1793, who says: "Be careful about looking radical because if they portray us as TOO anti-slavery we're stuffed."

It's not always easy for Ed Miliband to tap into the disaffection for unpopular characters, because if he denounces the bankers, he's told: "But your party spent 20 years grovelling to them." If he condemns Murdoch, he's reminded his former leader flew round the world to plead with him for support. He probably fears attacking Abu Qatada in case someone says: "But Peter Mandelson employed him as special adviser for nine years."

The result is that even while Labour enjoys its best election result for years, Ed Miliband seems as unsure of himself as ever, terrified of saying anything that might be judged extremist. So he might as well go and live in the forests of Central America for three years, being adopted by the people and learning their customs, then pop back and see if he's Prime Minister or not, depending on whether the country was so fed up with the Government that they carried on voting for him despite having no idea what he stood for.

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