The British public have a choice between the opposition’s good intentions with more detail to follow, and a never ending series of incompetent self-lacerations from the government
To an unkind observer, the main battle in British politics might appear to be between Government incompetence and opposition vagueness, with vagueness winning handily.
Last week, for example, should have been a good one for Britain's coalition government. After enduring a double dip recession, Ministers could salute a fall in inflation, good jobs figures, and -mirable dictu- a 1% quarterly growth rate.
Instead, they've found themselves embroiled in a series of unnecessary and self defeating rows over everything from whether ministers were for or against wind farms, the protracted crucifixion of a minister who had insulted police guards at 10 Downing street and, oddest of all, whether George Osborne, the Chancellor, had tried to sneak into a first class train compartment without paying.
Even this week, when the Government might seek to pat itself on the back for a return to growth, it has managed to publish a report by former Conservative titan Michael Heseltine that lambasts the government for having no credible strategy for growth.
Labour, on the other hand, is riding high following a successful conference for leader Ed Miliband, which launched “one nation” as Labour's new brand, slogan, and motto combined.
Acting as “one nation”, Miliband argued, was the only way Britain could address the serious issues the nation faces, so that if all bear the burden of hard times, all will gain in later shared success.
The idea of 'one nation' is part of a century old moderate Conservative tradition, consisting of tories like Benjamin Disraeli, Harold Macmillan, Rab Butler and aforementioned Michael Heseltine, who represent a centrist, even paternalist strand of Conservative thought rather abandoned by the post-Thatcher conservative party.
Because of this, Miliband's political and rhetorical move was both a bold claiming of the political centre-ground, and, an attempt to redefine what that centre-ground consists of in the post crisis era. The speech was widely agreed to be a triumph, both in political approach and presentation (Miliband spoke for an hour, word perfect, without notes, which is the test of political virility favoured by the British media).
However, even Miliband's greatest admirers agree that his speech left it a trifle unclear what precise decisions 'one nation Labour' might take to achieve its goals, and what this would cost, though the Labour leader did set out policy priorities, like support for vocational education, skills, income growth and balanced deficit reduction.
Rushing through the open door to offer details are a horde of thinktanks, trade unions, Labour supporting journalists and bloggers, all offering their take on what is and isn't “one nation”.
This open invitation to the political dance is intentional, according to those close to the Labour leader, as the 'one nation' idea will only succeed if the whole Labour movement, indeed the whole country, is involved in the journey from insight to firm agenda.
In the meantime, Labour has moved both to definitively own the “one nation” (the phrase, appears capitalised in every Labour press release, speech, article and soundbite) brand by offering thematic explorations of the key policy choices ahead. The most meaningful contributions to this have come from Miliband himself, who has made detailed speeches on the need to address mental health and signalled that childcare, skills and incomes will be among his biggest priorities.
Yet a thoughtful exploration of themes and priorities can also be a way of creating a useful ambiguity. This can be politically helpful, and is certainly unifying. For example, “one nation” can currently include those who think renewing Britain's nuclear deterrent is vital for our defence and our defence industry, and those who think it a huge waste of money.
Labour currently has a plethora of taskforces, reviews, and commissions, all helping define the content of “one nation”, but all also making it possible to deflect attention from the question “But what would you actually do?”.
Even where Labour has announced harder edged policies, from a temporary cut in VAT, repeal of the governments healthcare legislation, or seeking a cut in the EU budget, careful examination tends to reveal that the promise is less extensive than it seems, will expire before the next general election, or is more a way of putting the government in a tight spot than a deliverable policy.
This battle between government self-harm and the opposition’s strategic ambiguity came to a head on hallowe'en when Labour combined with right wing conservative MPs to defeat the government and demand the Prime Minister negotiates for a reduced EU budget at the upcoming summit.
No-one seriously believes that if a Labour leader were going to Brussels they would be able to achieve what they demand the Prime Minister do, but it provides a useful stick with which to poke the Conservative party in a very sensitive spot, while showing the Tory leader is not in control of his own party.
Frankly, a little opportunism is needed in opposition, and the vote doesn't matter much in policy terms, being more political scene setting than serious policy debate. Right now, the British public have a choice between the opposition’s good intentions with more detail to follow, and a never ending series of incompetent self-lacerations from the government. They, rightly, prefer the former to the latter.
If growth really takes hold, the current perception of ministerial division and idiocy may fade, but the government seems to be doing its very best to prevent any favourable re-assessment.
This is giving Labour the chance to quietly do the hard work of preparing for government in a unified way. Whether Labour is making the most of that chance, or just putting off unpleasant decisions to a later -hopefully post general election- date, only time will tell.
Hopi Sen is a former head of communications for the Parliamentary Labour Party. He is now a consultant, writer and commentator. He also blogs at hopisen.com
A contribution to State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory