For followers of the left the year could best be described as frustrating. About the best I can say for UK politics is that Ed Miliband is still in the job... and likely to remain so, despite ongoing mutterings about the quality of his leadership. He is vastly helped by the fact that most of his critics are unable to organise a piss-up in a brewery, as the "vote Labour - get Tory" LINO pressure group Progress proved with their completely inept contribution to the Yes To AV Campaign. Other maverick anti-Ed LINO forces like Dan Hodges do Ed a favour on balance by catalysing support for him more than they damage him - leading to my continuing belief that Dan is secretly in the pay of Ed's office. The classic "useful idiot".
However, just because Ed is still in the job doesn't mean he's doing a particularly good job in it. The hope with Ed was that we would see finally someone getting the Labour leadership job who combines the drive and single-mindedness (if not quite the charisma) of Tony Blair with the ideological backbone of previous Labour greats like Attlee and Wilson. What we have had so far, instead, with some honourable exceptions, is a slightly more approachable rehash of the Gordon Brown leadership style - i.e. not leadership at all; more just sitting in the middle of events waiting for something good-ish to happen. There is a memorable sequence from James MacIntyre and Mehdi Hasan's autobiography Ed where Ed goes on a radio phone in (maybe Radio 5 Live?) sometime in the new year of 2011, and the only thing callers are really interested in talking about is how he "knifed his brother in the back" to become Labour party leader. Twelve months on, if Ed were to go on the same phone in show, I'm sure much the same would happen. And after 12 months of these insane ConDem austerity measures and economic failure, that's simply not good enough. Labour ends 2011 in no better a polling position than it began - indeed, in the wake of the "veto" farce, Cameron's personal ratings have actually improved substantially. This is, to put it mildly, bad news.
To turn things around, Ed needs to observe one very simple maxim of politics; it's hard for a leader to be successful unless he/she is prepared to get out there and bloody LEAD. I have heard a story - which could be apocryphal, but it rings true, so I'll tell it anyway - that when Alan Johnson resigned as Shadow Chancellor Ed locked himself in his office for 2 hours not talking to anyone because he was so depressed that he'd have to give Ed Balls the job. Apparently because Ed Miliband is scared of Ed Balls. What does that tell us, if true? It tells us that Ed Miliband needs a kick up the backside and to grow back the spine that was so in evidence during the summer 2010 leadership contest. Listen son, Ed Balls is a washed-up also-ran in leadership terms. Tony Blair was scared of Gordon Brown because the two of them chose a stitch-up deal over a leadership contest in 1994 - enabling Brown to argue, however implausibly, that he had been denied the crown that was rightfully his. By contrast, Ed Balls fought as a candidate in the Labour leadership election - and was absolutely f***ing WALLOPED, finishing a very poor third. This guy, in Labour leadership terms, is HISTORY. I can understand Ed M being worried about a possible leadership challenge from his brother David, still sullen and watchful on the sidelines. But Ed Balls? No bloody way.
So Ed (M) is the leader... and so he needs to lead. That means not being scared of Ed Balls and it means refusing to bow down to the inflated paper tiger that is Progress. In practical terms, what does this mean Ed should do in the new year?
Firstly, he should make a number of keynote speeches fleshing out his very promising but underdeveloped ideas from the 2011 conference speech for a (much) better capitalism - squashing predatory businesses to open up space for the real producers. That has to mean a much smaller financial sector and much more for manufacturing, green jobs, the creative industries, and hugely underfunded sectors like social care. Together with a tax and corporate governance system system focused strongly on redistribution of income, wealth and power in favour of working people - the "squeezed bottom and middle", ambitious moves to increase gender equalities, and subsidies for education and innovation. Basic, obvious, centre-left stuff, articulated well by the left pressure group Compass, the Green Party, and academics like Martin O'Neill of York University. If Labour can't support a moderate social democratic programme along these lines there really is no point whatsoever in the party.
At the same time, he needs to accuse Progress of being a right-wing analogue to the extreme-left infiltrators of the 1980s - Militant et al - whose main objective is to destroy the Labour party. If this results in a handful - or even a few thousand - of the most ardent right-wing LINOs jumping ship to the Coalition, oh happy day! Labour's hard right is a huge albatross around its neck and probably the biggest internal hurdle to its return to power.
Thirdly, Big Guns need to be fired at the Coalition on a pretty much daily basis. This is happening a bit at the moment but in a far too reserved manner. Tony Blair had some good lines of attack in the mid-1990s which can be dusted off here - the weird thing is that although New Labour was largely a failure in policy terms, the rhetoric 1994-97 was actually pretty good. For example, "tacking the bills of social and economic failure" is a phrase that resonates completely with Ed Balls's critique of the Osborne austerity measures - which are fatally damaging Britain's economic capacity.
Lastly, there desperately need to be some big policies which the Labour Party can hang its message on. Again, New Labour had some totemic policies despite being weak on detail - windfall tax on privatised utilities, minimum wage, smaller class sizes, etc. The Labour Party policy review seems to have produced nothing of value so far and with Liam Byrne at the helm that was always the risk - indeed I now believe that the whole operation was a ruse by Ed to divert the energy of the Labour right into the minutiae of policies that would never see the light of day while he ran a parallel operation in his own office. But if that is what has happened, the parallel operation needs to produce concrete results very soon. As far as I can see there are two reasons that few people trust Labour on the economy; firstly because they presided over the worst recession since the 1930s (in fact recent data show that in the UK it's actually worse than the 1930s), and secondly because Labour has given no indication of how things would be any different in future if they were returned to power. Giving a clear indication of how Labour would do it differently this time round is an absolute prerequisite for standing any chance of winning the next election; and the greatest failure of Ed Miliband is that, over a year into his leadership, almost nobody has any idea how a Labour government would make life better for people in the UK or elsewhere. That is something he has to address in 2012. If he doesn't, I think he'll still survive in the job until 2015; but he'll be out on his ear after an election defeat.
(note: reading this back I'm very conscious that there are no links etc., mainly because it was stream of consciousness stuff and I had to motivate myself to write fast, or not at all. I'll try to put some links in tomorrow... if I get time. Otherwise, you know where Google is.)