by Atul Hatwal
On Tuesday, Ed Miliband did what should have been a good thing.
His speech on the need for a more active industrial policy was rooted in common sense. Ideas like a British bank tasked with expanding business lending are widely supported. And it was a neat idea to back an existing campaign by British manufacturers for a “made in Britain” label.
Although sceptics will always roll their eyes at a buy British campaign, the politics were right. Identifying the party with a business led initiative that had lots of businesses ready to talk positively about the proposal is a world away from “predators and producers”.
The government did their bit too, issuing a rebuttal comment that talked about the need for global trade and international business. The dividing line could not have been clearer – Labour backing British business while the government opened the next round of GATT negotiations with the public.
But despite receiving as warm a reception as he has enjoyed for an economic policy speech, what thanks did Ed Miliband get? Minutes after the applause he was fighting off a baying mob on Radio 5 live.
It was impossible not to feel sorry for him. The leader offered the usual platitudes about the scale of the task facing Labour, building up support slowly and getting a warm reception up and down the country. But it was just chaff.
What Ed Miliband reaped was in part the inevitable result of Labour’s economic strategy.
The last election was lost on the deficit. The electoral challenge for this parliament: which party is most trusted to reduce it.
In a way, Labour has understood this and developed a strategy that does indeed address the deficit.
Every press release issued by the economic team is rigorously consistent. The headline is almost always about poor growth with a clear causal link made in the story between growth, unemployment, reduced tax revenues and a worsening deficit.
Great. Job done, right?
Regardless of the economic validity of this approach, it fundamentally misunderstands why voters turned away from Labour.
The deficit is not seen as a problem that just arrived from outer space which now has to be solved. It was caused by someone: Labour.
The polling on culpability for the problem has barely moved since the election. The latest YouGov poll that asked the relevant question was last week with the response that 36% of the public hold the last Labour government solely responsible for the cuts, 25% the current government and 27% both.
Labour’s motivation on spending is what voters utterly mistrust. It’s all very well talking about growth as the best way to tackle the deficit, the public understand that, but unless the perception of profligacy can be shifted, voters fear a Labour government’s version of Brewster’s Millions will tip the economy back into the abyss.
Given this level of blame, the chosen strategy has totally failed to demonstrate the primary quality voters want to see from the Labour party – spending restraint.
Since Ed Miliband reshuffled his shadow cabinet in early October, the Labour party has issued 830 press releases. Out of these, there have been just two on spending restraint. Two.
In terms of Labour’s media effort since this shadow cabinet was appointed, the party has devoted 0.25% of its output to tackling the reason we lost the last election.
The two press releases came in January, like buses, when Ed Miliband and Ed Balls gave speeches on public sector pay restraint a couple of days apart.
But since then, not a squeak.
At the heart of Labour’s strategy is a chasm where some words and actions on reining in expenditure are meant to go.
Having a hole in the middle of your product might work if you are marketing a mint or a doughnut, but it makes less sense when trying to construct a viable economic alternative.
And because the party has failed to address voters’ fundamental concerns, we have been tuned out of the economic debate.
This is why, despite almost eighteen months of “too far, too fast”, the party has not just failed to make progress, we’ve actually lost ground.
Last Sunday brought a pivotal result in the polling. One of the intermittent questions asked by YouGov is whether voters prioritise action on the deficit or growth.
In last Sunday’s results, 38% agreed with the proposition that the government should stick to its current strategy of reducing the deficit, even if growth remains slow while 34% agreed with the statement that the government should change its strategy to concentrate on growth even if this means the deficit stays longer or gets worse.
For the first time, voters’ had prioritised tackling the deficit, and by a clear margin of 4%. In comparison when the question was last asked in late November, the numbers choosing growth had led by 1%.
This shift is the legacy of not being in the economic game. As a party we’ve not got past square one with voters.
Ed Miliband’s monstering by the mob was the inevitable result of our terminal loss of economic credibility. Beyond questions about his personal style, the lack of policy substance on the issue that matters most to voters is what truly diminishes a leader.
And all because of a simple misunderstanding.
On the deficit, the public aren’t particularly interested in Labour’s rational economic proposals for growth. They want emotional reassurance that what they see as the cause of the problems won’t happen again.
Until the party is prepared to offer that, the leader’s team had best cancel any more of those events with a live audience.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut