by Dan Hodges
RIP the progressive majority. “There never was any progressive majority strategy”, a member of Ed Miliband’s inner circle told me yesterday. “People have misunderstood the game plan. We’re not going to be making some desperate appeal to the Lib Dems. We’re going to be saying to them, ‘you’ve been duped, wouldn’t you be better off on board with us'”?
The claim that Labour’s leader never envisaged marching up Downing Street with a crowd of exultant liberal progressives is a touch disingenuous. “I want to see Labour become home to a new progressive majority”, Ed said in August. Labour must “earn the right to be the standard-bearer for the progressive majority in this country”, he repeated in January. “A yes vote would, above all, reflect confidence that there is a genuine progressive majority in this country”, he urged in May.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. One of the hallmarks of good leadership is the speed with which you learn from your mistakes, and if Ed Miliband’s immediate reaction to last Thursday is to extricate himself from his liberal progressive cul de sac, it’s a positive sign.
One of the few. “We just can’t believe it”, an exultant Tory MP told me, “We actually gained seats. It’s incredible”. Many Labour insiders reflect that view. “Don’t be fooled”, said one shadow cabinet source, “These results were dire. Much worse than people realise”.
The line from those around the leader is that while the solidity of the Tory vote was troubling, they still secured an important tactical victory. “We’ve torn away the shield”, said one. “The Lib Dems were giving the Tories cover, and we’ve smashed them. Cameron’s peachy pink arse is exposed now”.
Whether the prime minister has indeed been debagged is an open question. But what is not in dispute is that this was the voters’ first opportunity to pass judgment on the coalition since the election, in particular the cuts and higher taxes that constitute their deficit reduction strategy. And in the case of the Tories, they gave a reluctant but clear thumbs up.
What appears to have been forgotten is that a key part of Labour’s strategy since the turn of the year was not just to undermine the cuts, but to pin blame for them fairly and squarely on Cameron and Osborne. That strategy has palpably failed. “When Ed’s guys were coming round the press gallery on Friday morning we asked them if we still had to describe it as a Tory-led coalition”, said one lobby correspondent. “They didn’t answer”.
The cuts were supposed to be Labour’s magic bullet. “What is remarkable is how quickly we’re starting to earn back permission to be heard. We’re only in the tenth month”, Sadiq Khan told Total Politics last week. “As sure as night follows day, we are going to see a collapse in the housing market, a collapse in support for the Tories and the return of a Labour government”, taunted Kelvin Hopkins at PMQs.
At least complacency like that is now a thing of the past. “What’s terrified people about the Scottish result is that it’s seen as being a precursor of what could happen nationwide”, said a shadow cabinet source. “We sat back, said ‘we’re not the Tories’ and waited for the voters to flock to us. Next thing we knew, Alex Salmond was the new King of Scotland”.
But though the complacency may be gone, one simple fact remains. When the party says that the Conservatives are cutting too far and too fast, people don’t agree with them.
As my Uncut colleague, Atul Hatwal, has identified, at the start of the year the government enjoyed a 17% majority among those asked if they thought that the way the coalition was cutting the deficit was necessary. By last month, this had grown to 28%. Similarly, in January, 41% of voters blamed the last Labour government for the cuts, compared to 25% blaming the current government and 24% blaming both. In April, it was virtually the same. 41% blamed the last Labour government, 25% the current government and 23% both.
Labour has placed our strategy for the economy and deficit reduction before the British people twice. At the general election 12 months ago, and at the local elections last Thursday. On both occasions it was rejected.
I understand the economic logic behind our approach. I also understand the political rationale. But the country doesn’t.
“We’re not going to give the Tories a big headline that says ‘Labour spent too much’”, says one senior Labour advisor. Fine. There is a legitimate case to be made for running up a deficit in the wake of the banking crisis. But the problem for the party is that not only are we being blamed for the deficit, we also seem totally oblivious to the need to reduce it.
“We’re planning a long term strategy”, said a source. “What people have to understand is that at the next election the deficit will no longer be an issue. We’re planning for the post-cuts narrative”.
Great. But if we don’t demonstrate that we have a coherent strategy for dealing with the fundamental economic issues today, we have absolutely zero chance of receiving a hearing tomorrow.
Labour looks like it may escape the progressive cul de sac. But it now needs a plan for escaping the deficit denial cul de sac as well.
Potentially, it has one. It’s called Ed Balls. Labour’s shadow chancellor is the only person who can bring about the shift in economic strategy required to change the terms of the debate.
“Ed would like a more flexible strategy, and he’d like to be more open about our past economic failings”, said a shadow cabinet source, “but Balls won’t countenance it. He thinks it’s a betrayal of Gordon’s legacy, and by extension, a betrayal of his own”.
He’s wrong. If Ed Balls were to acknowledge Labour’s mistakes in tackling, as opposed to creating, the deficit, it would not destroy him. Far from it. It would be the making of him.
Ed Balls is currently the most skilful and powerful politician in the Labour party. But he remains trapped by his past. Every attack on Gordon Brown is viewed as a coded assault. Any criticism of Labour’s economic record taken as a personal affront.
Ed Balls can no longer afford to be so precious. And neither can his party. We cannot continue to bang our heads against the wall of the treasury in the hope that eventually people will realise that we were right and they were wrong.
We have made the argument the coalition is cutting too far and too fast. And we have lost it. Twice.
Now we need to construct a new one. Ed Miliband appears ready to show the courage to move away from the progressive majority strategy he held dear. And, frankly, he has neither the network, nor support, nor political capital enjoyed by his shadow chancellor.
Ed Balls, we know, has courage. He has loyalty in abundance. And a deft political touch. But does he possess the pragmatism to help steer his party through dangerous political waters?
If he does, last Thursday could prove a watershed. If he does not, it is no longer inevitable that night will follow day.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.