Paul Teasdale on a chorus of deafening silence
Silence of the leaders
In the post-election commentary there has been a rush to talk about the people to whom the Labour Party must tailor its appeal. That leaves hanging questions about what a party is for, but it is also avoiding an examination of what went wrong. There is a tendency to say we must look to the fight ahead, rather than spend time examining the past. For many politicians in the Labour Party, this seems to be a personality trait, but is accentuated by commentators who turn any discussion of the past into placing the blame on individuals.
However, we cannot really get into rebuilding the Party and finding a leader to represent it until we have some level of agreement of what was done wrong. It cannot be reduced to thinking that all will be solved with a better leader. This piece therefore is very much in the tone of post mortem rather than a rallying cry.
I begin by stating that Ed Miliband was the right choice in 2010. He was the candidate who best acknowledged the failings of Labour in government, and why (new) Labour had lost support. However, his personal weaknesses meant that he ended up repeating some of the errors of Brown, missing the bigger picture for the sake of short term headlines.
Two fateful decisions
The shape of Labour’s defeat in 2015 can be seen in two decisions taken in 2011.
The first was the failure to respond to the SNP electoral victory in the Holyrood elections. The second was the decision not to talk about the economy, and, in particular, not to defend the record of the last Labour government.
Silence on Scotland
The SNP victory was not a really a surprise as the LP had been poor in opposition and the SNP reasonably effective in administration. They have however not shown much policy development as everything has been focused on independence. The policy difference across the border that most people (north or south) recognise is the absence of tuition fees in Scotland – but they forget that this has nothing to do with the SNP: It was the key demand of the Lib Dems when they went into coalition with Labour to form the first devolved administration.
The main factor in tipping the victory into a majority was that was that the SNP was much better organised. They were not especially good but the LP was a shambles. The LP did virtually no work on the ground. The Party had sat on its safe majorities for too long. Canvassing and telling appears not to have taken place for some twenty years. And when it lost office in 2007 it had no idea what to do.
Miliband and others, perhaps rightly, stayed out of the 2011 campaign but the result and the inevitability of a referendum should have rung alarm bells and the decision to stay out of the debate on independence was a big mistake. They should have registered that independence would seriously reduce the prospect of a Labour government in the UK. Labour has only once (1997) come into government with a majority of English MPs (In 1945 and 1966 it was already in government). Secondly they should have seen that the Party in Scotland was in a bad way and in need of support.
Yet the Labour leadership played no part in the campaign against independence until the very end and then tagged along with the Tories. Nobody made a case for the union as the best means of promoting social democracy. The only prominent voice saying that permanent Tory rule in England would be bad for an independent Scotland was George Galloway. The no campaign became about weighing up costs and benefits rather than what sort of society we want. The absence of Miliband allowed the SNP to become the anti tory party. As far as I, as a frustrated voter, could tell, Miliband appeared to have no view on the matter.
The 2015 result punished the Labour leadership for neglecting Scotland. But it is a mistake to think Labour lost because the SNP was more left wing. In the 1980s Labour painted the Conservatives as an English party and the SNP has now done the same to Labour. People said they wanted Scotland to have a voice in Westminster readily forgetting that not so long ago much of the Cabinet was Scottish. The SNP are not a progressive party. They have few new policies except centralisation of policing. Nor is the electorate of Scotland particularly more left wing; they may express more concern for the disadvantaged but no party in Scotland has felt ready to use the tax raising powers given in 1999 to fund more welfare. Sturgeon talked about resisting austerity but has no plans to raise taxes to fund spending in Scotland. In advance of the independence referendum the SNP were talking about reducing taxes.
It may now be time to give full autonomy to the Labour Party in Scotland. Several people in the independence campaign and even within the SNP had the belief that a new left wing party could emerge with independence. I voted against independence because I do not believe that there would be much scope for social democratic policies in an independent Scotland if the UK were pursuing contractionary fiscal policies, but I would like to be proved wrong.
Silence on the economy
A more important choice of 2011 was the conscious decision to give up the fight on the economy and on the economic record of the Labour Government. During the recent campaign I grew increasingly angry at the failure to respond to the repeated accusations of having spent too much, or of having “bankrupted the country”. The myth has been created that Labour spending caused the recession. From the day after the election the Tories succeeded in setting the key issue as the mess left by Labour. The biggest betrayal of the Lib Dems was to echo the Tories’ line even though they knew better. The BBC has supported this myth; even when questioning where the axe should fall, the necessity for cuts has never been challenged. Clearly in 2011 the Labour leadership felt they were fighting a losing battle.
By 2015 the myth was so entrenched that if any Labour politician attempted a correction during the election campaign they were met by condescending sneers from both Tories and interviewers such as Dimbleby. When pushed on spending I heard LP people plead that there was a need to spend on schools and hospitals, but not rejecting the accusation that the Labour government damaged the economy. In fact there was a lot in the macro economic performance of the Government of which they should have been proud. Without the actions of Brown and Darling, it is possible that the banking crisis could have led to a full scale worldwide depression. While other world leaders seemed flat footed they were able to generate agreement for reflationary policies. This might have been seen if he was not so bad at the job of prime minister in other respects. History will treat Brown a lot more kindly than did the British public.
In recent months, forced to say something, Miliband has talked about imbalance, and tax revenue being over-dependent on the banking sector. This makes it seem like a technical issue. He should have been saying that Brown did the right thing. Would they prefer the Government to have let RBS, Lloyds etc fold? If Labour is to have social democratic policies it needs to reject and challenge the assumptions behind these questions. The economy was not bankrupt. There was never a threat to the flow of lending. Ed Balls and Ed Miliband both studied economics so they know that borrowing is an important tool in economic policy and there is no inherent virtue in a balanced budget. When interest rates are so low there is no need to reduce the debt. But instead of saying this they seemed prepared to go so far as enshrine balanced budgets in law.
There are so many misleading simplifications about debt and Labour has not challenged any of them. For instance: do people know who holds the debt? The implication is that it is with other countries. About a third is to the Bank of England, and much is with the British public.
The decision not to discuss the deficit seemed, to Miliband, to be vindicated by the success in scoring points against the 2012 budget, where they focused on tiny details such as pasties. And then in 2013 by the response to his talk of freezing energy prices. Examine the speeches of Ed Balls over the years and they become ever more limited to details rather than principles.
Rather like Brown before him, Miliband thought it safer to talk about details rather than messages. Yet looking at the Conservatives’ success it is clear that they have emphasised broad messages rather than details or promises: Vote Conservative for a stronger economy was all they had to say. To reduce politics to a shopping list of policies (energy prices, bedroom tax etc.) does not sway many votes and is rather insulting to the electorate who are looking to what kind of government they want.
Silence on the recovery
The failure to defend the Labour Government actually left the LP in a difficulty when it came to explaining the recovery, having predicted disaster. They have appeared to deny there was a recovery. It should have been acknowledged that, however slow and late, there has been the start of recovery. While real wages have not moved – because there has been no improvement in productivity – most households are better off, with record numbers in employment and although the earnings ladder may not be moving many individuals are moving up the ladder.
To many, the Tory policy of austerity appears to be working, when in fact the economic growth can partly be explained by the Tory failure to deliver. As Balls has pointed out, the reduction in the deficit has not matched the rhetoric. Second and most important has been the massive (£375 billion) quantitative easing – in other words, printing money which would have horrified earlier Conservative chancellors. This has injected money into the economy but without the benefits to the infrastructure that public spending might bring. Instead it has inflated the price of assets of the richest people, widened inequality and fuelled a housing bubble. In addition, there has been the injection of capital from around the world– particularly into London – encouraged by the stable legal system and the tax loopholes created by Brown and Osborne
We are not in a sustained recovery. There has been no improvement in productivity and therefore no increase in wages. Earnings are more unequal but more alarming is the increase in wealth inequality having distorting effects on the economy.
Silence of the contenders
I could not say that these decisions were the cause of Labour’s defeat. There were other problems: labour’s themes seemed to focus on the more marginal workers rather than the experience of the wider working class and at times made the party sound like a campaign group. But these decisions in 2011 definitely shaped the defeat and they hang over the party now.
At the time of writing, several weeks into a leadership contest, not one contender has felt able to discuss the economy. In their careful statements it seems that the candidates to want to accept Tory economic axioms (they cannot be called a theory) and to move on – with some even suggesting that there is moral virtue in a balanced budget. To be taken seriously by the media it appears that they have to say that the Labour Government spent too much. There is rhetoric about reaching parts of the electorate, but we cannot tailor policies, whether for those who left in 2010 or the new “aspirers”, if we are not trusted on the economy. Labour will not do that by saying that the Tories were right all along.