by Samuel Dale
If ever there was a wake-up call, this is it. Not since 1987 when Labour lost the Greenwich by-election to the SDP has the party faced such a devastating loss.
Last week there were some positive signs, Miliband’s good performance in response to the budget or harrying of the Tories over donorgate and pastygate shouldn’t just be forgotten. But now more than ever this needs to be harnessed and turned into something tangible and lasting. A narrative that can run until the next election.
He is capable of doing it but there is one problem. It’s the economy, idiots. Labour still lacks credibility and until it regains it, sporadic good polling and Tory slip ups will remain shallow and electoral success a far off dream.
In all of the soul-searching that is to ensue next week Ed Miliband has a chance to address this core problem. The biggest issue is the impression that Labour was profligate with the public purse and that caused the crisis. It’s not true but it’s the impression.
And with Ed Balls as shadow chancellor it has been mission impossible to get the public onside that Labour has learnt its lessons.
Miliband must face this problem head on and if he can portray the Tories as out of touch right wingers there is an option.
He should shift Labour’s rhetoric to demonstrate the party’s commitment to fiscal restraint and then as the focus increases on the party’s spending plans, pledge to match Tory expenditure targets one year before the next election, albeit cutting more fairly and more reasonably. Two traits fast-leaving the prime minister.
It doesn’t mean Labour must accept it has been wrong on the economy all along, far from it.
The party should explain how Tory plans have caused the economy to flatline and it would have done things differently. Slower cuts, more investment, more growth.
But in 2014 a case could be made that the worst is over and the deficit can be reduced more quickly so the UK can begin to repay its debts.
Labour can still assert the Tories have mishandled the economy by missing their deficit reduction targets and choking off the recovery.
The Tories have provided Labour with a window here by playing up to the stereotype of out of touch nasty party of the rich. Labour can realistically claim to make the same spending cuts in a fairer way and it should grasp it.
This week bears the hallmarks of a watershed moment in politics. In amidst the wreckage of last night, an opportunity beckons to park Labour’s tanks in the centre of British politics. The Tories have been forced to the right so let’s keep that as the focus rather than economic competence.
Let the next election be judged on fairness rather than Labour profligacy vs Tory fiscal responsibility. Right now that is exactly how it will be framed and it is a battle with only one winner.
Let’s throw the Tories off guard and be bold as hell. Dreadful as Bradford West was, it maybe it can give Ed Miliband shock needed to do it.
Sam Dale is a financial and political journalist