Ruthless, brutal, heartless: our attacks are music to Tory ears

by Dan Hodges

The trouble with politics is there’s never a ragin’ Cajun around when you need one.

Ed Miliband has begun the New Year by springing from his corner with the speed and ferocity of Jake LaMotta. Cameron and Clegg have been pinned to the ropes as the punches rain down. VAT. Banker’s bonuses. Oldham. One killer blow and they’ll be eating canvass.

But something’s holding Raging Ed back. The final hay maker feels heavy in the glove. For some reason, he can’t quite put them down.

James Carville would know the reason.  Bill Clinton’s campaign manager had the answer to every political conundrum. And it was the same answer.  “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Ever since the graphic, “Conservatives retain Basildon”, flashed across our television screens that cold morning in 1992, Labour strategists have held one truth to be self evident. The party that is not trusted to run the economy will not be entrusted with running the country.

Bill Clinton’s election victory later that year confirmed it. For the first time for over two decades a progressive party had taken on the right, and bested them, by selecting the economy as their battleground. As we watch Barack Obama move to heal his nation, and look back wistfully at three consecutive election wins, it’s easy to forget the significance of that victory.

But some have forgotten. To them it’s no longer “the economy stupid”. Now, it’s “the cuts stupid”. Polly Toynbee’s “red carpet of opportunity” lies enticingly before us. As the Tory led coalition scythes through our public services a terrified electorate prepares to leap gratefully into the arms of their Labour protectors.

Possibly. The Lib Dem’s are already in free fall as a result of their cynical act of appeasement. The Tories cannot indefinitely defy the laws of political gravity. Ultimately, the cuts will take a toll of the architects as well as the victims.

But a word of warning: if we have learnt anything about this Government it is that their callousness is underpinned by a low cunning. Cameron and Osborne are not fools. They have a strategy. And we are playing to it.

Ruthlessness implies competence. Brutality; strength. Heartlessness; decisiveness.

This government’s enemies are stupidity and weakness and indecision. It is the ghost of Major, not Thatcher, that keeps Osborne and Cameron awake at night.

Yet our attacks do not challenge that definition – quite the opposite. They enhance it. “You are arrogant”, we cry, “You are too hard”. “Yes”, they sneer, “because we are the masters now”. And subliminally, the message goes forth. They are hard. They are arrogant. But they are the masters.

The Tories didn’t lose power because they were the nasty party. They lost power because they were the incompetent and nasty party. And of the two, incompetence was the more damaging vice.

Cameron knows this. That’s why he is deploying his own version of the ‘rope a dope’ strategy. Take the difficult decisions early. Absorb the hits. Wait for the economy to improve. Come back swinging with tax cuts, a reputation for toughness and a warning, “not to let Labour wreck the recovery”.

Our ability to withstand that counter-attack will decide the course of the next election. But again we are in danger of making good tactics the enemy of good strategy. Every high street protest against corporate tax avoidance, statement warning of an imminent   slide into recession or attempt to minimize the impact of the national debt drags the party off the crucial economic territory it needs to occupy.

The trails for today’s Fabian speech indicate Ed Miliband is beginning to recognise this. According to the briefings, he will acknowledge failings in Labour’s economic management, including an attack on the loose regulatory regime that laid the foundation for the banking crisis.

But bashing the bankers, or bashing those who failed to bash the bankers, will not be enough. Labour’s battered reputation for economic credibility will not be rebuilt upon the solid foundation of Bob Diamond’s corpse. The party still needs to articulate a coherent and compelling narrative over the key area of economic debate; the deficit.

Deficit denial, or the perception of deficit denial, threatens to do for Labour over the next four years what unilateralism did for the party in the 80’s. It is the defining element of the defining issue. The point of the economic spear.

Our deficit denial is a rum creature. It’s actually a strange amalgam of coyness and fetishism. “We did not court the deficit”, runs one side of the argument, “it pursued us from afar”. The other side protests, “We cannot cast the deficit aside. It would be petulant and reckless. We must cling to it tightly”.

Both these stances are perplexing. The idea Labour was not responsible for the deficit is politically and factually erroneous. Labour is self-evidently responsible; we were in office at the time. Nor is, “the buck stops over there”, ever an effective response. To the question, “isn’t it a Labour deficit”, our response should be “Damn right it is. And if we hadn’t mitigated the banking crisis by running up a deficit your kids would now be calling the head of the IMF ‘uncle Strauss’ ”.

Equally, we must counter the idea we regard deficit reduction as nothing more than an evil plot to grind the welfare state to dust beneath George Osborne’s jack boot. Whether we like it or not, the public think balancing the nation’s books is necessary. What’s more, they are increasingly coming to regard it as pre-requisite for political credibility.

Labour now faces a choice. We can adopt the “kitchen sink strategy” and hurl everything we can at the government, in the hope the sheer ferocity of our assault will make it tumble. Or we can develop a strategy that enables us to build as well as destroy.

What’s needed is a 2011 version of the  ’22 Tory Taxes’. A new articulation of Gordon Brown’s brilliantly calibrated attack line which obliterated the final vestiges of Major’s economic authority, whilst simultaneously demonstrating that the economy, and not just the health service, were safe in Labour’s hands.

Because despite fears about “fighting the last war” that remains the key battleground. It’s the issue we’ll need to control in four years time. And forty years. And four hundred.

Yes, the cuts will damage the Tories. Make people angry, and fearful and resentful. They will lay a red carpet of opportunity that will lead right to the very door of Downing Street.

But they will not open it. There is only one key to power. The same one as ever. It’s the economy, stupid.

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7 Responses to “Ruthless, brutal, heartless: our attacks are music to Tory ears”

  1. Art Li says:

    Every time Ed Miliband or his supporters say the deficit (& national debt) have nothing to do with Labour and everything to do with the “evil” bankers, and running a permanent budget deficit is okay, it damages Labour’s credibility. Accepting that the buck stopped with Labour is probably the best thing Ed Miliband can do, he can then move on –>

  2. Rob Sheffield says:

    Great piece: a lot of the Labour blogosphere are under 35 and therefore have absolutely no idea how a single (flawed and delusional) policy can dominate successive election campaigns as CND did in the 1980’s. Ditto how it is possible for the Conservatives to decimate areas of the UK economy and society and still win elections because they are faced with a nonsensical and ridiculous leftist Labour policy platform.

    These young (ish) apparatchiks also seem to have a failure to recall the 1992 impact of the tax and spend ‘shadow budget’ on that elections result.

    We are in opposition now and the rules for that are different. Harking back to some leftist agenda (oh sorry current favourite word is ‘liberal’) that only ever led the Labour party down the road to ruin is another example of a failure to analyse political history.

    It is good today to see EdM admitting that we made some economic errors- even more so if that ultimately leads via the policy review to a total rejection of the deficit deniers prospectus.

    It’s also nice to see him floating post Blairite policies such as the dilution of the Trades Union link and their influence on the management of the party.

    It has been a promising start to 2011 all round by EdM and the leadership of the party.

  3. Pete Smith says:

    “…What’s needed is a 2011 version of the ’22 Tory Taxes’. A new articulation of Gordon Brown’s brilliantly calibrated attack line which obliterated the final vestiges of Major’s economic authority, whilst simultaneously demonstrating that the economy, and not just the health service, were safe in Labour’s hands…”

    So nothing positive just attack lines?
    As for Gordon Brown, you surely haven’t forgotten (we haven’t) that he was the king of stealth taxes, fiscal drag and a catastrophic banking regulatory system. Before you use the “tories wanted to reduce regulation” defence. Don’t forget that fewer better targeted laws are a huge improvement on lots of poorly drafted legislation such as that produced by your favourite Chancellor.
    Brown inflated a massive debt bubble and used the cash to buy votes, he was found out and has destroyed any semblance of the left being able to successfully run an economy.
    As for the NHS, only one government has reduced spending on the NHS in real terms and it wasn’t the tories. Only one party offered a policy of ring fencing NHS budgets at the last election, it wasn’t labour.
    So to conclude, it is the economy stupid, sadly the left is stupid about the economy.

  4. Personally I would dispute how incompetent the last few years of the Major Govt were. Indeed Clarke’s policies were followed more literally than he would have done till 2002ish (no doubt Brown expected to spend money as PM but that’s a by the by).

    However it is a game of perception. Thatcher’s Govt up to Lamont’s end was economically incontinent and yet with North Sea Oil, a fair wind and perceived incompetent opposition, whatever! 3 election wins – see 1997-2010.

    Over playing the cuts and screaming morality seem to be the biggest mistakes of us on the left at present. Moral outrage and polarising leads to incoherence not putting a vision out there of a functioning machine champing at the bit for Govt.

    It sounds like we prefer to think more of ourselves by defining people with different opinions as immoral rather than us building ideas for a new Govt to wipe out the memory of 13 years of incompetent illiberalism

  5. Thales says:

    I agree we need a much stronger economic attack. So let’s fire Alan Johnson and bring in Ed Balls.


  6. WHS says:

    “To the question, “isn’t it a Labour deficit”, our response should be “Damn right it is. And if we hadn’t mitigated the banking crisis by running up a deficit your kids would now be calling the head of the IMF ‘uncle Strauss’ ”.”

    Absolutely foolish. If Gordon Brown had run surpluses up to 2008 and the financial crisis, then yes we’d be running a deficit, “Labour deficit” or otherwise, but we would be in the same lane as Germany and the economy and cuts would not be the defining dominant issue as they have been in the UK the last year.

    The problem isn’t the deficit from 2008 to mitigate the banking crisis, it’s the deficit that came before in the times of plenty, when Keynes – who is now so popular in Labour economic circles in order to defend the deficit – would have said save the pennies for the inevitable rainy day.

    Those deficits in the early 2000s weren’t spent on any banking crisis – it was spent on fostering a benefits culture, so that if any economic problems did arise, there’d be enough people dependent on benefits in some way to be so averse to the prospect of Tories cutting their benefits, that they’d go out and vote Labour and keep them in office even if – or rather “especially if” – they mucked up the economy, and a new broom was needed.

    You put your party before the national interest and it is unforgiveable.

  7. William says:

    Mr. Hodges should note that ‘the cuts’ actually include an increase in government spending over the lifetime of this parliament.If you want ‘a key to power’, try coming up with some well thought out policies that admit that ‘no more boom or bust’ was the fantasy of a deranged politician,that government expenditure above 40 percent of GDP is unsustainable,that the tax system should be designed to exclude the bottom 2o percent from income tax and NI, and that the welfare state should represent value for money, rather than a paradise for the minority scroungers.By the way,we lost the last election badly,and the electorate did NOT choose Darling’s deficit reduction programme. We lost the election because WE were seen as incompetent.Try and avoid writing like a 16 year old.

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