Peter Kenyon sees a risky strategy and wants Miliband to be honest with voters
Fingers crossed Labour leader Ed Miliband is saving the best until last. Firing off policy ideas too early just feeds a hostile, predominantly right-wing press. So an apparently incoherent economic policy less than a year before a General Election might not be such a bad tactical move. But it is testing for party members keen to get out on the doorstep with clear, easy to tell messages. Repeating commitments to Tory austerity policies is regrettably saps the party faithful’s morale, put off prospective new members and reduces the odds of winning an absolute majority of seats in the Westminster parliament next May. That is a risky strategy. We can only presume that Miliband believes the electoral downside of upsetting financial markets, the business community, and the media, versus being honest with the electorate, are still too great to come clean?
A great tragedy befell the Labour Party when Alistair Darling, as Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer (commonly known as Finance Minister in any other jurisdiction) announced in January 2010 that the budget deficit arising from the banking crash in 2007/08, would be cut by 50% over the course of the next (Westminster) Parliament. Deliberately or otherwise, he cemented a Thatcherite mantra into the national political consciousness – treating state finances just like a household budget. Why 50%? Why five years? We were never enlightened. Darling just told the Financial Times it was ‘non-negotiable’. By putting the budget deficit centre-stage, Labour lost sight of why the public finances were in such a mess – the bankers, and the critical need to reignite economic growth, real incomes and employment creation. Policies that had been put in place by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Darling were working. But that technocratic policy focus in the twilight days of that government gave birth to the Big Tory lie – the mess that Labour left behind. And Labour under Miliband has been strangely silent on that matter.
Those of us who are too easily and lazily branded ‘looney lefties’ are in good company challenging Labour’s front-bench. The roll of honour of austerity refuseniks includes distinguished economists, like former Bank of England monetary policy committee member, David Blanchflower, former TUC economist, now BBC Newsnight economics editor Duncan Weldon, columnist Polly Toynbee and now possibly former Labour front-bench heavyweight Alan Johnson. Johnson’s entry into the fray reported by the Daily Mirror on August 14th 2014 is fascinating. In Keighley on a hot summer’s evening to promote his autobiography, Johnson in an oblique criticism of Ed Miliband’s leadership, prefaced with praise of Labour’s message about the cost of living crisis lamented that the Shadow Cabinet had failed to nail the Big Lie. “We have stopped talking about it,” he said. “I don’t agree with that.” This latest recruit to the anti-austerity cause could trigger a radical shift in Ed Miliband’s presentation of Labour’s economic thinking.
Food on the table
Labour’s 2014 summer campaign to woo voters was set out in his ‘the Choice’ speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects at the end of July. It was long of self-deprecation “you could find people who look less like Wallace”, but short of ‘in your face’ political goals. Labour’s mission is surely to get enough money in people’s pockets so they can put food on the table, get and keep an affordable roof over their heads and offer their children a better future. At the same time, there is a parallel requirement to restore trust in politicians. Otherwise, the state will never be enabled to raise taxes to pay for better public services, and play a constructive role in the wider world to secure peace and prosperity.
Miliband chose in his speech to Labour’s National Policy Forum on July 19th in Milton Keynes to set a completely different tone: “The Tories can never be the answer. And why? Because the Tories don’t even understand the problem. They think this is how a country succeeds: Low wages, zero hours, bad terms and conditions. That’s the Tory approach. A race to the bottom. These problems have got worse under the Tories. But they started before the Tories got to power. Even before the recession. And they won’t simply be fixed by recovery. And the answer cannot be our traditional answer either. Of spending to fix the problem. You and I know we won’t have the money. For all of the cuts, all of the pain under this government, Britain still has a deficit to deal with and a debt to pay down. That’s why our programme starts with a binding commitment to balancing the books in the next government. We will get the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next parliament. We will deliver a surplus on the current budget.” (My emphasis) Miliband cannot be serious. Does he really think that repeating the Thatcherite mantra about balancing the books should continue to occupy centre-stage of Labour’s economic policy? How can that be squared with boosting purchasing power by raising the national minimum wage, offering tax breaks to employers paying a living wage, and ramping up new housing builds to 200,000 additional homes by 2020?
“There’s no more money”
Nailing the Big Lie should be a primary focus, not promising a budget surplus.. As for repeating that economically illiterate statement by former Labour chief Treasury secretary, Liam “there’s was no more money” Byrne MP, that really is pathetic. Of course there is more money, tax avoidance schemes, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (only for the poor), quantitative easing, villas, yachts, share incentive schemes, golden hellos, golden handshakes, golden handcuffs, tax cuts for millionaires, housing benefits for buy-to-let landlords – the list goes on and on. Big reform yes, but not in the interests of brushing away the real issues facing society out of a fear of upsetting the markets. What is really puzzling is that Labour is already committed to tax more to spend. So Ed, if you don’t mind me being blunt, why the deceit? Surely one of those bright things in your office has worked out that Tory campaign strategists are likely preparing their 2015 General Election ‘Labour – tax blitz krieg’ campaign already. Restoration of the 50p tax band (proposed by former Labour Leader Gordon Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling in their 2010 budget), a £2 million mansion tax, and a repeat of the Bankers’ Bonus tax (again originally implemented by Brown and Darling). Each of these devices is seen by Labour today as part of its tax fairness agenda.
Pre-empt the Tories
Surely, it would make sense for Miliband to use his 2014 Conference speech in Manchester to counter the intense nastiness that will characterise the next election? Get people on side now, Labour needs as many as possible to carry its agenda for hope forward. Labour’s leader needs to pre-empt the Tories on tax and be honest with the electorate.
There is a lesson in all this regarding party management, brilliantly revealed in Lewis Minkin’s latest tome, reviewed on page 28 in this issue of Chartist. Miliband remains enthralled to the machine: There are people who staff Labour’s head office and regional outposts, those who have worked in trade unions, represent safe Labour seats and who share a leadership cult, and distrust freethinking members. Conference stage management, stifling debate, isolating members continues. It is resented. All that Miliband has been able to achieve is to ease some constraints on the deliberations of the National Policy Forum (NPF) imposed by his recent predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Web-based devices have been contrived under the One Britain rubric offering members or anyone else an opportunity to contribute. But there was still no debate at the most recent NPF in Milton Keynes about economic policy or any other issue. Instead, there was horse-trading over words to achieve a so-called ‘consensus’. After the event the Huffington Post published (11 August 2014) an illuminating synopsis of contributions from constituency Labour parties that had met and formulated submissions. The piece was headlined: Ed Miliband’s Agenda Branded ‘Pathetic, Bland And Catastrophic’. Of course, insiders will say that the NPF discussion documents are not necessarily Miliband’s or Labour’s Agenda. But they are all ordinary members have to work with.
In hock to the unions?
In a marked departure from NPFs ahead of general elections in Warwick in 2004 and 2009, there was no late night bargaining with the affiliated trade unions. Miliband, already under intense criticism from the Tories and the press, did not want to add fuel to the charge that Labour’s leader is in hock to the unions. Instead, an understanding was apparently reached beforehand and under wraps. What was agreed with the unions is shrouded in mystery. What we know is that when George McManus, a comrade representing members in Yorkshire and Humberside, moved an anti-austerity amendment to drop Tory spending plans in 2015/16, the first year of the next Labour government, the affiliated trade unions voted AGAINST.
Avid readers of Minkin’s new book will understand how that happened. But who is going to read 800 words to ease a sense of betrayal. There is a simple remedy. Honesty. NPF members in the consensus wording deliberations on the Work and Prosperity working paper know what Labour’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls revealed in his attempts to stifle debate about austerity. According to my sources at the NPF he admitted there will be an emergency budget. That is precisely what the Labour Assembly Against Austerity (LAAA) has been calling for. That sort of dishonesty by a leading member of Miliband’s front bench team is weighing down Labour’s standing with the electorate. To quote Miliband: “We can do better than this.”