Conversations in the Short Campaign

Ballot-Box-4x3There are, amongst all the other ersatz-yet-eternal regulations which commentators and politicians bring out almost newly-minted to prove their passing points, two rules of British politics: never write off the Conservative Party, and never underestimate the capacity of the Labour Party to alienate its allies. Were we to seek a narrative which might explain the static, enervating and gutless General Election campaign of 2015, these verities might be at its centre. In a period of political flux, in which the two major parties can no longer muster the support to command a majority of the Commons even under an electoral system designed precisely to fix it for them to do so, the Tories and Labour have each remained true to form: an astonishingly weak and witless Conservative campaign has nevertheless edged resiliently ahead in recent polls, despite all the dire warnings about governing parties always losing seats and shares of votes; and a schizophrenic Ed Miliband, on the one hand over-performing to the occasional extent of charming the public (no, really: watch his interview with Geoff Lloyd), has nevertheless gone out of his way to rob his party of any advantage the parliamentary arithmetic may provide it in the face of a larger Tory party, by telling the SNP and everyone else that he would prefer not to govern than work with fellow left-wing travellers.

What we have witnessed, then, is a defensive election campaign: the Tories scaring voters with absurd visions of chaos occasioned by the arrival of actual representatives of Scotland at Westminster, the Labour Party issuing mugs for sale with the words ‘Controls on Immigration’ printed on their sides in satirical socialist red. I have sympathy for both strategies from a purely pragmatic perspective: David Cameron faces a full-throated attack from his right, and knows from his party’s stubborn poll rating that being positive on the subject of the Coalition’s patchy record on the economy isn’t working; Labour also faces a revolt from that constituency which was once at its core – the white working class – and is loath to appear any longer to dismiss apparently widespread concerns about the impacts of globalisation (although, according to May2015, Labour voters at least rate immigration fairly low in their priorities).

Whatever, though, happened to leadership? Both leaders have spent five years denying a core vote strategy, and yet in this short campaign that is clearly what each have been pursuing: hoarding, not winning, votes. It can be little surprise in this context that the polls have shifted so minutely, if at all, or that in frustrated response the mainstream media has resorted to some of its most partisan reportage in a quarter of a century. This has been a grudge match of an election campaign, one in which the balance is so fine that the participants have chosen to avoid mistakes rather than aim for triumph. The Liberal Democrats have adopted an unimaginative and blandly centrist offering, openly placing themselves as useful only as a counter-point to eternally frustrated hard-right Tories or frankly chimeric hard-left socialists. Even UKIP’s Nigel Farage has been relatively tame, as if the speakers of right-wing truth to power have just as much to lose by opening their mouths as their sold-out brethren. The Greens, too – joined with UKIP in being punished by our electoral system – have doubly hobbled themselves, either deliberately or by design, by inexactly and timidly communicating if not their rather confused policy platform then the ideology that sits behind it, which one day might allow a more organised party to craft something a little more coherent.

Only the SNP, of those parties able to make much of an impact on Thursday night, seem to have produced something close to a positive campaign – and a message that seems both forthright and outward-looking. They look set to be rewarded by FPTP with a disproportionate number of seats. And there we reach the rub of this election’s undiscovered country: something remarkable is happening in Scotland, powered by David Cameron’s post-referendum cynicism, but its implications for the future of the United Kingdom are unclear, occluded by fear-mongering and parliamentary chicanery. In deference to the Middle England which the Conservatives’ campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, has sought to terrify with visions of a rampant Alex Salmond, Labour has – perhaps unavoidably, perhaps not – failed to make a crucial twin argument: first from a unionist perspective, as part of the better-together tone of the Yes campaign last year, that representation from all corners of the UK, and all stripes of opinion within it, is welcome at Westminster; and simultaneously from a leftist perspective the important point that nationalism undermines our society’s ability to withstand the pressures of corporate interest (and, should the more conservative position also need to be embraced, geopolitical flux). This rather old-fashioned and myopic Tory-Labour showdown has led us all down an unedifying cul-de-sac of sectional argy-bargy and dancing-on-the-heads-of-pins posing.

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Perhaps all this is why the most striking aspect of this campaign has emerged in my conversations with other voters: that is, their almost universal lack of satisfaction with the choices on offer. As most of the parties have sought to play defence, so most of the voters have identified a vacuum at the heart of each of them. Take an estimable friend of ours who considers himself a natural Conservative but bemoans the decision to give the most successful political party in the Western world back to the Etonians: he considers David Cameron a Liberal or a Blairite (it’s not clear to either of us which is worse), and sees no useful place for his vote in the current system; in a seat in which the Tories could win, he’s attracted to UKIP’s defence policy, and its deficit-busting machismo, but understands how limited their voice and impact will be. He is in this way (and few others) no different to a voter who would love to full-throtedly endorse Labour but, say, finds its range of ceramic drinking vessels less than encouraging.

Where our frustrated Tory might be right, however, is that, for left-wingers who fell out with Labour during the Blair-Brown years, Ed Miliband is their reddest option since dear old Neil Kinnock. He may be keeping TTIP, but he would exclude the NHS from its provisions; he might have supported the Libyan action, but he more or less sabotaged intervention in Syria; and, in his refusal to accept in front of a hostile BBC audience that Labour had spent too much, he is bravely and gamely wearing a Keynesian tin-hat of proportions entirely alien to New Labour. Here’s another conversation we’ve had during this campaign, however: with a leftie who will be voting for the Greens, in a Tory constituency where they have no chance of winning. Any support for TTIP, in his book, is a deal-breaker; Trident must go; Labour is simply not ‘left-wing’ enough. Here is a mirror image of our Tory: a voter faced with signing away any influence on the actual government that is formed in the week following May 7th (assuming, as we all must, a hung parliament), making an imperfect (and arguably self-defeating) choice on the back of the sort of negatives which have defined this campaign.

“Make the Labour party the party you want it to be!” responded another friend of ours when we spoke about this issue. He’s not a member of the party but, like me, grew up in a rock-solid Labour seat, in which paradigms that may now be forever long-gone influenced at least my own political thinking. This sort of hopeful activism, the sort that has done the SNP such good in Scotland, is inspiring, even as it acknowledges the currently broken politics of the left – but is of little use in the voting booth tomorrow. “Vote tactically,” suggested another of our friends, herself marooned in a safe Tory seat and therefore urging us to avoid letting in another chap in a blue rosette via a vote of principle in our own, more marginal, constituency. She is joined by yet another friend, who would prefer to vote Green but, she has said, will vote otherwise in order to hold off the Tories. The siren voices of tactical voting are compelling – is your vote an anti-Tory (or anti-Labour) one more than it is actually committed to an alternative? – but in a feintly rotten borough such as ours, in which the sitting MP has more or less ordered his minor opponents to stand down in order to give him more negative ways to win, they are also fork-tongued and depressing: if we continue not fully to represent in our voting patterns the range of political opinion in today’s UK, will we not continue to suffer under an electoral system struggling to keep up with us?

All of these imperfect decisions look set to leave us with a messy photo-finish on Friday morning. I expect a surprise mini-swing to the Conservatives which may allow them to cobble together a wafer-thin majority with the Liberal Democrats, but inevitably the DUP and UKIP will have influence there. If Cameron fails to get to the magic number of 326 or thereabouts, however, Labour faces a rabid press for months or years – depending on how robust the Fixed-Term Parliament Act turns out to be in practice (and even Nick Clegg has, along with Labour, had a conversion on its rigid strictures in recent days). This may do long-term damage to the left generally and also (and counter-intuitively, given the alternative is government essentially by England) the Union. (To wit: “The House of Lancaster lost the crown in 1461 because Margaret of Anjou did a deal with the Scots.” Oh.)

In many ways, the story of this campaign is why Cameron has been so absent from it – it certainly seems he is not onboard with the bluer-than-blue approach of Crosby; but the story of its aftermath will be how well – or, more likely, how badly – Westminster deals with the SNP. It will be easy to be narrow and factional – more or less the definition of Cameron’s Conservatives (he has not looked good even next to Sir John Major’s contributions during this campaign), and also the direction in which Labour is being pushed by the right-wing press. But this approach will make our next Parliament even more, not less, fractious. First Past The Post, a system once lionised for providing strong government, is now contributing to the political uncertainty which in 2015 is enraging press barons, flummoxing politicians and, most importantly, thoroughly frustrating voters.

 

Parsing Politics in 2015

election2015And so the General Election of 2015. I used to write a lot more about politics on these pages. In one of my last two posts on the topic, I said this: “it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party“; in the other, I said this: “When there is a political voice that will speak out against those sort of veering right-turns, expect more politics in these pages.” The absence of any such posts since should say the rest.

There is a palsied incapacity in our body politic to express any alternative to the preening austerity of the Coalition Government. The Tories have abandoned any One Nation credentials in their pursuit of a self-appointed task, pursued with temerity since the economic crisis of 2008, to conjure multiple excuses from that single event for various infringements upon the state. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, emblazon their election literature with the words “stronger economy”, by which they unimaginatively mean “more cuts”. The Labour party, too – powered by Ed Balls’s increasingly macho face-off with George Osborne – are committed to the era’s standard-issue white-bread version of “fiscal responsibility”. The hyperventilation which greeted the election of Syriza in Greece reflects the dicky ticker of our late capitalist pessimism: there is no other way but retrenchment.

This was one of the topics of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, Bitter Lake. In an interesting experiment, this was released only on the BBC iPlayer, negating the need to split it into a series of episodes, or to edit it into manageable length or conventional structure. I’m not sure this helped the film – it goes for long spells without adding to its own argument, instead focusing on lengthy tessellations of images which tend all to reflect the same contrasts between rhetoric and reality. Indeed, that gap is Curtis’s primary target in the film: he suggests that, following the oil crisis of the 1970s, Western democracies allowed big banks, reigned in since the reforms of the Great Depression, essentially to take charge of economic policy in exchange for social stability. Bitter Lake not entirely successfully splices this idea with the various wars in Afghanistan since the Second World War, arriving at the conclusion that our ruling elite knows its narrative makes no sense – but lacks the imagination to reshape the world as Franklin Roosevelt did.

It may be deeper than that, however. The current political malaise drills down to an issue of the language in which our politics – our identities – are expressed, not just the imaginative capacity of a few politicians. A month or so ago in an edition of the BBC’s horse-race-heavy This Week, the Green MP Caroline Lucas (who on the same programme made a terrible hash of attempting to describe why The Sun‘s Page Three is a bad thing) corrected Andrew Neil on the subject of the Chilcot Inquiry: “You are hoping for vindication, aren’t you?” Neil asked, suggesting that the primary interest of the pacifist Greens in an investigation into the Iraq War was the gaining of political capital. “Well, I rather hope it’s about learning lessons,” Lucas replied, rather nonplussed by the cynicism. As our politicians have become, or reframed themselves as, managers rather than directors of state policy, so the way in which we in turn analyse and assess their motivations and relations has migrated from the ideological to the positional.

This cynicism is present in our political literature: Anna and I have since the New Year burned through the first two seasons of the US remake of House of Cards. The original series, of course, also focused on a fairly venal and dispiriting stripe of politician; yet Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood lacks not only the original Francis Urquhart’s cultured airs and graces, but mostly importantly his political ideology: Underwood appears not to have anything approaching a political position, whilst Urquhart was always identifiably a member of the Tory right, with consistent policy aims that, whilst often presented as straight-forwardly villainous, at least suggested some form of point to holding power. In the US, as in the UK, it has become a governing assumption of our culture that politicians have no guiding principles, only a careerist approach to office-holding.

In this context, political language suffers. Lucas struggled to defend her position on Page Three because the vocabulary of belief is excluded from the discourse; in the days following that appearance on This Week, the Green leader, Natalie Bennet, was judged to have been savaged by Neil on The Sunday Politics when she failed to justify a range of positions he had more or less randomly selected from the more or less crowd-sourced Green website for scrutiny. There is an ideological underpinning to Green policy, even when a particular element has not been adopted by the party as a manifesto commitment; but ideology is either demonised (and not always, as is traditional, by the right) or, and this is something new, simply disbelieved in the way an unsophisticated historian might interpret medieval religion – as a figleaf for the real purpose, which is to hold power cynically and selfishly.

This is the reason, it seems to me, that the Labour Party under Ed Miliband have struggled so thoroughly to offer an alternative to the Coalition’s slash-and-burn narrative. When Miliband suggested in 2011 that capitalists can be split into ‘predators’ and ‘producers’, he risked, as any dichotomy does, reductive thinking; but he also touched on a sense of an unjust capitalism, a need to reign in its wilder excesses, which is felt across the political spectrum. Without the capacity to express that feeling in ideological terms, however, Labour have been left tacking from one tactical formulation to another, adding up to an appearance (and sometimes a reality) of incoherence – and, finally, defaulting to a sort of austerity-lite, which only buys into and reinforces the dominant and destructive managerial paradigm of our political age.

In his defence, in last week’s televised Q&A (if we’re being critical of our political language, let us not hide David Cameron’s frit-ness beneath the word ‘debate’), Miliband reached for some of That Vision Thing: he talked about general directions, opposing Cameron’s statistics-heavy delivery with a sense of passion and vision. Though a snap ICM poll for the Guardian gave the Q&A to the Prime Minister, Miliband’s low-boil attempt to begin to break out of the technocratic strait-jacket had a more lasting effect: more considered polls with larger samples in the days following last Thursday put him ahead, and on Sunday a YouGov poll for the Times put Labour four points ahead.

A ComRes poll today, however, gives the same advantage to the Tories. If we lack a new language to reframe an increasingly sterile political debate (a point of frustration on the right as much as the left, where there is fury that no apparent means of communicating a Tory message for the 21st-century is available to the Conservative leadership), we also lack the means to think about the reasons for this weirdly wheeling public opinion. In the Guardian, Paul Mason suggests that this is due to a fracturing of the British electorate into three tribes: a financialised one residing in the south-east; a Scandinavian one in Scotland; and a more amorphous, ‘post-industrial’ tribe residing in the north of England and in most major cities. These don’t seem entirely convincing – UKIP surely straddles at least two of those groups, whilst what is going on in Scotland seems rather more complicated than a continental drift towards Oslo. But the theory that the tensions of the early 21st century have shaken out the last vestiges of the twentieth, and have left our political classes adrift amid a proliferation of new, baggier identities, feels about right.

Identity politics is a matter of controversy. In the LRB, Jackson Lears recently wrote, as part of a sad assessment of Hilary Clinton’s inevitable ascendancy to the Democratic nomination for President:

The rise of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing. Critiques of concentrated power, imperial or plutocratic, became less common. Indeed, the preoccupation with racial and gender identity has hollowed out political language, the void filled by an apparently apolitical alternative – the neoliberal discourse of antiseptic intervention abroad and efficient productivity at home.

The danger of identity is that it is so fissiparous that it reduces all ability for publics to join forces in pursuit of something greater. This is the phenomenon of breaking-down described insufficiently by Mason; it is the fracturing that threatens the Tory vote from the right and the Labour vote from the left; and yet it represents the single greatest challenge of this general election campaign. If a new language can be found, and a new narrative acceptable to a unity of interest groups expressed, a breakthrough will be had. If not, we will spend the campaign, its aftermath and potentially another five years of a fractious parliament, playing instead to our increasingly segmented national gallery. Should that be the case, the debate around electoral reform – for the introduction of a system which can at least better reflect, channel and make sense of this Disunited Kingdom – should surely be renewed. It is hard to develop a new language without the appropriate grammar.

On Margaret Thatcher

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Back in the dog days of 2008, I did something I do not usually do: I cut out a newspaper cartoon and pasted it on my door. It was a Steve Bell piece, a portrait of the City of London, at the time resembling Rome under Nero, all harsh sunlight, glass and chrome; in the foreground, and in shadow, was a green wheelie dustbin. In the dustbin, you understand, was Margaret Thatcher.

That Thatcher could still appear in a political cartoon in 2008 – that she appeared in them well afterwards, and will dominate them tomorrow – is, of course, eloquent testimony that she remained the dominant politico-mythical figure of our age. Not only that, but I wasn’t yet eight when she left office – and yet I cut out that cartoon because it seemed to me to capture quite profoundly (if optimistically) a jonbar point, a moment when paradigms were in flux. Her bodily death is neither here nor there, except to those who knew her personally – we could have had shot of her half a decade ago.

Of course, through the back door and without the popular support Thatcher once enjoyed, since 2010 the Coalition has ensured that, like Pavlov’s well-trained dog, we have snapped firmly back to the paradigm Thatcher set. Indeed, hers was a paradigm which has not stood still: in the 1980s, welfare reached its lowest level relative to wages in thirty years; it is now 8% lower. We now spend almost half the amount of GDP we spent on welfare then, and yet the Coalition continue to demonise claimants as the great drag on our economic and social life (and not, naturally, the elite irresponsibility the neoliberal Big Bang helped inspire). The position of those against whom Thatcher’s government was set continues not to erode – the vicious passive voice – but to be eroded.

So, where there is despair, there might seem to be little hope. When a Prime Minister times a statement to appear live on the 6 O’Clock News, as David Cameron did tonight, it is because he believes the potential benefits outweigh the risks; a St Paul’s funeral for Thatcher, and the hagiography which will precede it and ensue, will help the Tories further entrench her vision of society and of her opponents which they are peddling anew. For trades unions read benefit claimaints. For Kinnock read Miliband. For all-powerful self-correcting markets read … well, more of the same.

That’s why, and perhaps here I’d think differently had I the same bitter and immediate political memories of the 1980s as some of my friends, the gloating over Thatcher’s death isn’t just misplaced – it makes the Left look counter-intuitively spiteful, even when they may be that correct that public figures who reject compassion as Thatcher did give up the right to the obligatory respect due to private individuals. No, that schadenfreude is missing the point: Thatcher was an avatar of capital, of its interests and stratagems, and capital has not gone away. In fact, unlike creepily reverential young Tory bucks, it moved on from her long ago except as a sort of fairground animatronic to be wheeled out on special occasions.

Gloat all you like (and, in case I am being unclear, I will shed no tears on the day of the over-emphatic funeral). The Disability Living Allowance will still be gone in the morning.

The Party Conferyawns

A graphic depicting not least the heart rate of conference-goers this year.

David Cameron, looking tired and not a little strained, dutifully took to the stage at the Conservative party conference yesterday and proceeded to handwave for a while. “Our plan is right,” he insisted in reference to his government’s economic policy. “And our plan will work. I know you can’t see it or feel it yet.” He went on to describe the plan as similar to, you guessed it, building a house: “The most important part is the part you can’t see – the foundations that make it stable.” In the absence of detail or even underpinning logic, listening to this section of the speech resembled sitting through a sermon: the evidence of God’s existence is everywhere, oh ye faithful. It’s just invisible.

The week before, Ed Miliband hadn’t fared much better: “The tragedy of Britain is that it is not being met,” he intoned. “My mission. Our mission. To fulfil the promise of each so we fulfil the promise of Britain.” This sort of clumsy phrase-making marred and muddied a speech which some have characterised as wildly left-wing but which was in truth less coherent than a piece in the New Statesman by Miliband’s ex-speechwriter. Cameron had a finer turn of phrase, but the hollowness and timidity at the heart of his speech was also what, ironically, make Miliband’s sound scarier and more off-piste. There may be a bone to flesh in the latter’s speech, but all was thin gruel this past month. There has been a wooliness about the conference season that is symptomatic of a political class without the courage to spell out their nascent responses to dumbfounding events.

Even following Miliband’s mincing repositioning, it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party: each political tribe, and Cameron chases Miliband even as he mocks him (for instance on the division between predatory and productive businesses Tories had been lampooning all week), have focused on the squeezed middle. The problem, of course, is that the longer our political leaders opt to be mealy-mouthed the more likely it is that many more of us will be poor. They spent the last three weeks desperately trying to ensure nothing actually happened – a boo here, a catflap there were treated as cataclysms. There is much worse to come, and as Steve Richards so rightly comments today, no evidence in rhetoric or deed that we’ll have an answer when it does.

Why Liberal England Slept

Lib Dem ministers eye up their latest crush

Are Liberal Democrats naive or merely foolish? This seems to be the key question of current British politics: their apparently genuine shock and amazement at the extent of the Tory betrayal on the AV campaign suggests that at the very least the party’s leadership were too credulous when negotiating with the Conservatives, or that the were positively cavalier, ignoring all previous experience in the face of an Old Etonian smile. The Lib Dems are notoriously dirty campaigners themselves; that they have been knocked for six by a Tory-funded No campaign that spared no one’s blushes, and certainly not the terms of some paltry prenuptial, strains credibility.

Labour, of course, were sadly split on the AV issue – not least because the party’s Scottish MPs, who saw their bailiwicks turn to Alex Salmond on Thursday, rely in large part on FPTP to shore up their  majorities. But it seems a trifle rich to blame Ed Miliband, a leader who continues to speak the language of the ‘progressive majority’ despite all evidence of its existence tending to the contrary, for the failure of a campaign  that mattered apparently so much to Lib Dems (though not so much that all the party’s supporters could bring themselves to vote Yes). The blame must fall on whomever under-estimated small-c conservative opinion and large-c Conservative dishonesty – and over-estimated the chances that the public would turn to constitutional revolution at the merest flimsy word from an admittedly cuddly liberal.

Nick Clegg will continue that under-estimation of the electorate at his peril – yet his transparent positioning on the rolling back of Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms suggests that the Lib Dem leader, who is oh-so bravely choosing to do away with a Bill already abandoned by many Tories, including Cameron himself, will forge ahead in the only way he knows how: blindly, but with an increasingly forlorn hope that something will turn up. One might welcome the demise of the proposed NHS reforms, but Clegg will need not to halt Tory policies already in the process of being abandoned by Tories themselves, but succeed in implementing Liberal Democrat policies which people care about. It’s not enough for Ed Miliband to invite Lib Dems into his own party – he should be supporting any sign of a sort of fifth column within the Coalition. But with Labour under-performing and the Lib Dems at such a loss, that Old Etonian smile grows broader by the day.

Well OK Then to AV

Over-stated, under-sold

Has constitutional reform ever been so unsexy? It’s hard not to see in Nick Clegg’s acceptance of the Tory offer to hold a referendum on AV the germ of today’s poll numbers: the problem with AV is that it only excites people desperate to stick with First Past The Post. Even the greatest proponent of the Yes To AV campaign can find only lukewarm arguments in favour of the system we will all be voting under should it prevail tomorrow. Most of these arguments have to do with how AV is not FPTP – and a negative argument is rarely a convincing one. The rest – that MPs will work harder, or that it will make every vote count – are various shades of nonsensical.

And this, of course, was always the Tory plan. AV doesn’t change the game so much as add a modifier; and therefore conversion to one side or the other is difficult. This leaves the sort of rallying cries and dog whistles we’ve seen each campaign resort to with depressing ease – because the aim can only be to fire up those already against voting reform, or to enthuse those in favour of it. I believe FPTP is unfar; I don’t particularly believe AV is the silver bullet. Nor do I believe that a Yes to AV will mean further reform soon – though I agree with Ed Miliband that should the result be a No, then there will be little chance of revisiting the issue voting reform for some time to come.

Thus, of course, the dilemma: faced with a choice between AV and many other alternative voting systems that could replace FPTP, I would not choose the Alternative Vote. Our Tory overlords, however, have connived to ensure I have only a choice between a broken system and a slightly less broken one (or one that’s still broken, but in different ways). Vote Yes, and I risk contributing to the adoption of a system I don’t like that much, either; vote No, and not only do I side with John Reid and David Cameron – I in effect register my disinterest in further debate on voting reform. In the absence of the zeal of conversion, however, both campaigns tomorrow face a referendum set to default – few have been convinced by anything more than their pre-existing prejudices, and the rest have largely ignored the whole affair. Does anyone expect turn-out to be very high? Thought not. Over on Labour Uncut, Dan Hodges didn’t need a crystal ball to call the result as early as yesterday.

Doomed to a forlorn hope and incrementalism, however, I shall vote yes. But as I do so I’ll hear David Cameron’s cackle all the way from Downing Street.

Perception is Reality, Neophyte

Ed's media strategy has become more complex.

Over the weekend, it was increasingly easy to tell that the Labour Party have invested in some press people. In December, Ed Miliband appointed two stalwart political journalists, Bob Roberts and Tim Baldwin, to his communications team, and their effect is already being felt: it’s not, frankly, that Miliband is saying much of anything that is different or new; it’s simply that he’s having more success in getting the messages placed. From his Fabian Society speech on Saturday to the continued positive coverage of the Oldham by-election victory, Labour are punching about their weight in column inches. Not all those inches are favourable – Melanie Philips today does her usual turn on the subject of Miliband’s supposed turn towards small-c conservatism – but, at a time when the Coalition are being talked about largely in the negative (either from the right or the left), this breadth of coverage is no bad thing.

They are being helped along by a Coalition agenda tottering under its own weight; appearing on the Today programme this morning, David Cameron was unsure on Coulson and under-briefed on the looming fight over the NHS. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, continues to get a bad press. Even Fraser Nelson has to admit it’s going well for the reds. Those rumours, repeated on This Week by Jon Cruddas, of an early General Election in May start to look more tempting from a Conservative standpoint.

After all, the news from Oldham East and Saddleworth was not all good: yes, Lib Dem voters switched to Labour; but Conservative voters switched to the Lib Dems in considerable numbers, and the net impact was, despite an increased Labour majority, a slightly increased Lib Dem share of the vote. That this still wasn’t enough to tip a majority of 103 towards Clegg’s party is a bad sign for them; but any nascent political union between the two Coalition parties is more worrying still for Labour. If, given time, Tories choose to vote for Lib Dems in other marginals, Labour will lose seats; whether Lib Dems will do the same for Tories, of course, remains an open question. Unfortunately for the yellows, of course, most of their own seats are Tory marginals – and it’s difficult to say how comfortable Labour voters will now feel in voting tactically.

So the picture is confused – not least because the AV referendum may now be delayed. But what is increasingly clear is that Labour – ahead in the latest polls by some distance – now have at least some space to make their counter-weight felt. Tactical nous is not strategic victory, however – and the party’s platform remains somewhat dazed and confused. A job for heavy lifting in the background, to be sure – but it means the Coalition yet retains the real, rather than the perceived, initiative.