Labour is nervous

Like a breeze on an open sea, ripples of uncertainty are spreading across Labour's ranks at Westminster.

Labour MPs know that if the opinion polls stay roughly the same as they are now then the party should win a majority at the general election.

But a narrowing poll lead, an uncertain response to the Budget and an anguished letter to the Guardian from Labour thinkers has prompted a fresh bout of introspection.

Veteran Labour figures caution against panic. They hope the budget will unravel over time as people question the detail of the pension reforms. They hope, too, that the Tories will suffer at the European elections in May.

"Some Labour MPs are a bit jittery," one shadow cabinet member told me. "But we have always said the election will be close. The Budget was the Tories' biggest set-piece intervention of the year. It is no surprise they have had a bounce.

"But my guess is that it will be a sugar rush that will fade."

Another shadow cabinet minister said: "People need to calm down a bit about the polls. People need to hold their nerves a bit."

But Labour MPs worry when they see Conservatives talking confidently about how their new pension policy will help them tackle UKIP. They fear economic recovery will eventually win more votes for the Conservatives. And they get nervous when they get told by their frontbench that the answer to everything on the doorstep is a price freeze on energy bills.

To some in Labour this is a crisis of confidence. To others it is a temporary post-Budget wobble. In truth, it is an expression of doubt that has lifted a lid on several debates taking place already within Labour over strategy, policy and personality.

Strategy

Some in Labour fear the party is adopting an undeclared core-vote strategy, focused on the 35-plus percent of voters that Labour needs to win a majority over the Conservatives. They fear this is too cautious and bound to fail.

This is what the Guardian letter-writers mean when they say: "If Labour plays the next election safe and hopes to win on the basis of Tory unpopularity, it will not have earned a mandate for... change."

One Labour peer told me: "That Guardian letter put the cat among the pigeons. It is one year away from an election. We should have our tails up but we don't. We need two or three clear pledges that resonated on the doorstep and we don't."

I am told there was "a lot of irritation" about the Guardian letter at Tuesday's NEC meeting, not just for being unhelpful but also for some of its impenetrable language with its calls for "holistic" approaches to "disrupt power relations".

One Labour source said Ed Miliband could have signed up to much of the Guardian letter. "They are having a fight in an empty room," he said. "We have to remember we are combatants in this fight, not commentators."

Policy

The Guardian letter does, though, reflect a persistent gripe among some Labour MPs who are looking for bolder policies and a touch more vision. Some talk of inertia in Ed Miliband's office, a place where ideas go to die.

The leadership's answer is they are being bold, with policies for an energy price freeze, a jobs guarantee and radical banking reform. They promise more radical stuff to come on rail infrastructure, council housing and higher education.

To which the critics reply: that is all very well but it is not enough. There is not, they say, a clear offer to the electorate of what a Labour government would do to protect and nurture the recovery: banging on about the cost of living will only go so far.

Team Miliband reply: the cost of living goes to the heart of the debate about the economy. The economy needs not just to grow, they argue, but also to change so that growth can be enjoyed more fairly by all sectors of society in all parts of the country.

One shadow cabinet member told me how they had a group of constituents down from the north of England who looked at London's skyline and asked: "Why do we not have cranes like that?"

So one of Mr Miliband's closest advisers told me the real debate within the leadership is between radicalism and reassurance.

How radical can the Labour leader be in setting out what he sees as the need not just to grow the economy but change it too? How far can he promise to change our markets, our banks and our industries while still reassuring voters that the recovery would be safe in Labour's hands?

And that, he says, will be the real battle within the party as it announces a series of new policies in the coming months that will form part of their election manifesto.

Personality

Part of that debate is still about Mr Miliband himself. When Labour MPs talk of the need for the party to speak in a clearer language, they are speaking in code about their leader.

The criticism, so it goes, is that he speaks like a north London academic rather than a populist political leader, a man who leans towards ponderous abstractions rather than campaign-ready sound bites.

It also reflects a worry that the Labour leader's Budget response was not really a response to the Budget at all but instead a rant about the cost of living.

His supporters say that was deliberate; they do not want to accept the Tory narrative about the economy and so will return to the cost of living at all occasions.

So Labour is nervous and scratchy, looking uncertainly towards an election they think they should win. For some of their MPs, it is going to be a long year.

James Landale Article written by James Landale James Landale Deputy political editor

Major praises 'drive' of immigrants

Former prime minister Sir John Major praises immigrants for having what he calls "the very Conservative instinct" of wanting to improve their lives.

Read full article

More on This Story

More from James

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.