Labour is fighting the wrong campaign

by Anthony Painter

Since 1993, Labour performance in county council elections on a national equivalent basis is as follows: 39%, 44%, 42%, 36%, 22% and 29%. Thursday was better than the absolutely disastrous 2009 result that came a year before its second worst defeat in the modern political era. But it was a performance significantly worse than a party expecting to be winning a majority in two years’ time should have had.

The comfortable thing to do now is focus on the Tories’ travails and UKIP’s surge. But for anyone who wants to see a Labour Government in 2015, the far more sensible thing is to focus on Labour for a while. It is very difficult to write a piece cautioning the party about its current direction when so many new councillors have just been elected and so many local campaigns were so effective. That tremendous work absolutely needs to be acknowledged. Unfortunately though, the overall picture is extremely worrying. There has been a spooky silence on this fact since Thursday and that ultimately won’t help Labour win the majority it should in 2015.

Labour’s strategy isn’t working and it needs to reassess radically the approach that it is taking. Labour has decided to adopt Obama 2008-style “hopey-change” as a strategy. The problem is that next election doesn’t have a hopey-change feel to it. People want change but it is a desire for change that is sceptical and grounded in perception of what will be effective rather than wispy visions.

The 2015 election has a “please spare us from George Osborne but don’t be silly” feel to it. If it were an American election it would be 1992 rather than 2008. It’s the economy, stupid but that doesn’t mean anything goes. It’s just as winnable for Ed Miliband’s Labour as it was for Bill Clinton’s Democrats (UKIP as the Ross Perot of the UK anyone?) and Neil Kinnock’s Labour in 1992. One won and one lost and in that tale lies the strategy that can take Miliband to Downing Street.

There is time to correct what has gone wrong over the last few weeks. Moreover, Ed Miliband has come back from set-backs before – stronger, wiser, more effective. His conference speeches in 2011 and 2012 barely merit comparison; the latter was vastly superior which got across a similar message.

Labour’s campaign came to abrupt halt in a down-the-line interview on BBC Radio 4’s World at One. It was the moment when its strategic weakness was completely exposed. Hopey-change met stark reality in what was simply a series of very straightforward questions that any opposition hopeful of winning power should be able to take in its stride.

Miliband’s problem is not one bad interview. It’s what lay behind that interview. And the biggest concern is the policy weakness.

Labour’s biggest negative is economic trust. It is fashionable around Westminster without any real evidence to say that the next election will be decided on “standard of living”. This is a minor part of it. It is economic trust and governance that matters and Labour has abjectly failed to address this weakness since 2010. Instead, it has tried to win an intellectual argument against George Osborne. The intellectual argument is won. George Osborne has got it wrong. Yet, the problem with focusing on destroying your opponent’s proposition is that you can leave yourself unclothed.

Labour says growth. Osborne says debt. The public say growth and debt. So if you are going to borrow more in the short-term then you better have a good argument for why that will reduce borrowing.

Labour’s chosen method of stimulus – a temporary cut in VAT – is more likely to add to rather than reduce debt. An infrastructure and investment heavy stimulus is a different matter. Labour has seemingly accepted the argument hitherto the preserve of the right that tax cuts are self-financing. It’s from the same stable as “expansionary austerity”. What’s even more bizarre is that this is a temporary cut so when it’s reversed (and Labour did reverse a temporary VAT cut in early 2010) the stimulus effect is reversed.

It’s a hell of a leap of faith to say that the economy will be advancing strongly enough on its own steam a year or two down the line. These financial recessions have a very long overhang. Abenomics is the latest attempt to jolt the Japanese economy into life after 20 years of largely failed attempts – we’ll see where that ultimately ends up.

Where Labour has failed is to articulate a strong position on both growth and debt. It is right that its policies will spur some pretty meagre growth. It has almost nothing to say about debt other than vague assertions. This was the void into which Ed Miliband has been sucked. It was entirely predictable.

By now Labour should at least have some clear sense about the impact of its policies on a whole series of variables including growth and debt. It can’t just assert it – it’s not trusted remember. This doesn’t have to be a complete budget. It could be simply be some broad principles and objectives with some sort of fiscal framework or at least principles of a fiscal framework. Simon Wren-Lewis makes a strong case for a fiscal council similar to the institutional architecture recommended by In the Black Labour. And Labour has to be honest that it is going to have to cut public spending.

Watching Labour in action these last few weeks has been rather like watching a hot air balloon float off into the distance. It is careless and it will be disastrous if it were still pursuing this strategy in a year’s time when it will be too late.

At a best guess the next election will be a security election. That doesn’t mean it’s a status quo election. It means that to win requires statesmanship and statecraft. Reassurance will be as important as inspiration.

Labour’s prospectus is recognisably social democratic. It’s not a radical alternative – it’s an evolution of Labour c.2010. As such, what is required is something more grounded if the broader Miliband change message is to resonate.

If people feel that they have to choose between hope and security then they may drift back into George Osborne’s arms. When they are confident they can have both, the centre-left wins. And that, with few notable exceptions, is the story of elections in western democracies in the last quarter of a century. There is no convincing evidence that is has yet changed. Labour is fighting the wrong campaign for the wrong time. There is still time but not very much.

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic

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16 Responses to “Labour is fighting the wrong campaign”

  1. Nick says:

    It is the economy, but it is all down to what the state has done to screw it.

    Desperate for cash to keep paying its debts, all 7,000 bn (pensions included), it will screw the economy.

    Having ripped off 26K a year workers out of 450,000 quids worth of pensions, they are having to rip them off for more.

    Only by facing up to the extent of the theft, can any of the major parties get back to being trusted.

  2. Felix says:

    “People want change but it is a desire for change that is sceptical and grounded in perception of what will be effective rather than wispy visions.”

    Here we go, Painter again making his outrageous claim that he, Anthoney Painter, KNOWS what the people want.

  3. bob says:

    All governments should be afraid of the electorate not the other way around. If politicians do not stop putting their fingers in their ears and going lalalala I’m not listening they will thrown out of office by those who do, or one day it will be one lamppost per politician.

    Many of the so called political elite live in a bubble, when did any of the party leaders actually work in a day to day environment of the working man/woman in this country, with all the worries of find money for mortgage heat light gas and trying to get to work everyday. If Cameron Miliband or Clegg opened their eyes they would see what is happening. I suspect wherever they go the smell of fresh paint is overwhelming and the audience carefully selected as happened at a hospital in Manchester not so long ago. Staff were not allowed to ask questions they wanted to ask about the future of the NHS.
    Maybe a few lampposts meeting politicians on a rope is just what we need to encourage the rest to actually represent the PEOPLE who are the electors and therefore their employer not the other way around.

  4. e says:

    “What will be effective”? Well when vision becomes, “wispy” and hope “hopey-change, I feel sure it’s whatever maintains support for the vested interests of current financiers.

  5. aragon says:

    The deficit is a product of Government policy and irrelevant.

    Like the child catcher, it is a right wing invention, used to frighten the children.

    Unfortunately it is easy to transfer personal micro economics to the macro, but the rules for Government are different.

    “Austerity in the midst of a recession when monetary policy has lost much of its power is macroeconomic illiteracy” Simon Wren-Lewis.

    Stop legitimising the Tory scare stories

    e.g. Kenneth Rogoff, Carmen Reinhart and the spell of magic numbers By Samuel Brittan (

    Even Simon Wren-Lewis is pedaling nonsense,

    “additional spending in good times that will in effect be paid for by future generations.”

    So no to fiscal councils.

    I need to lie down in a darkened room, the world has gone mad.

  6. Len Arthur says:

    As Labour Party members in Wales we wrote about the danagers of the right and UKIP about four weeks ago – citing the threat even here:!/2013/04/discussion-resisting-politics-of-right.html

    It was argued that fightback is not just a policy debate but also has to relate to our basic humanistic philosophy as socialists and at the same time develop unity in resistance at work and in the communty.

    See also our recent posts about the possible direction of the Labour Policy debate. Basically we do have a world to win; it is possible to argue a radical and international case and win – we just have to have the confidence to do it. We are less likely to win over the male over 60’s – my age group unfortunately – UKIP voters who see the past through crocodile tears and romantic rose tinted glasses. We will make serious connection with younger people, woman and all those who are threatened by the hate policies of the Tories and UKIP.

  7. swatantra says:

    We have to knock this nonsense that politicians ‘don’t work’ on the head. They do. Like any specialist they develop an understanding of how the political machine and the machinary of Govt works, and how they can use that specialist knowledge to the advantage of their Party and more to themselves. Its a tough job, keeping up with your competitors and rivals and is a cut throat business; you can find yourself out on your ear at the whim of the electorate, who always have a poor understanding of the isues, priorities and would be scared stiff to take life and death decisions, certainly decisions that invite unpopularity.
    What politicians don’t have is an experience of life, and life skills, especially if they are professional politicians, and most these days are.
    Take a look at the County Cllrs re-elected to their safe Tory or Lib or Lib Dem Seats seats; some have been there for donkeys year; some more than 30-40 years; they are part of the furniture at County Hall. You’re not going to tell me that these Cllrs have the ears of the public or a real feeling for the hardships that the public are going through. To some its a job for life and a cushy one at that.
    They get returned term after term and think they are doing us all a favour.
    I don’t think so.

  8. LesAbbey says:

    So Anthony 1100 words and you are too embarrassed to tell us what your answer is? Come old man, spit it out. We can’t discuss your suggestions unless you actually suggest something.

  9. Terry Casey says:

    I think the 2015 election was lost in the months following the last election, the Labour Party allowed the coalition to repeat ad nauseam “The Labour Party left the economy in a dreadful state” or “Labour uncontrolled spending caused the financial crisis” it is true they left the economy in a state and no one can deny it, but what can be argued is that there was no alternative and the spending on saving the banks saved us from further disaster. Labour MPs just sat on their hands and said nothing allowing the coalition to plant firmly into the heads of the population many misconceptions of what really went on.
    The population is now worried voting Labour is a risk even after witnessing what must be possibly the worst government we have ever had, and it is all about perceived debt.
    The Labour Party have now manoeuvred themselves into a position were the very word debt is an anathema, they are terrified of the word which has them in a straightjacket, but they will go nowhere if they don’t commit to growth and they cannot do that without debt, Anthony Painter makes some very valid points except the most important one what do we do now? I would like to ask Ed Miliband what would Attlee have said in the present circumstances? he most definitely would not have said we have to avoid debt, nor would he have said we can’t afford to sit and do nothing which seemingly is what is on offer now and in a future Labour Government. Attlee facing the worst crisis this country has seen got Britain working, He built houses that took us out of the slums that polluted this country and he built the NHS, we were in extreme debt after the war yet he built homes for hero’s we need to get back to that and get our population working again, the rest will look after itself, as long as we shackle those fking banks.

  10. bob says:

    swatantra: maybe we should have fixed term politicians in that they can serve for instance 12 years and then must step down for at least 8 years before standing again, maybe then they would then have a knowledge of the realities of everyday life. This would stop the in particular local and county council gravy train that is prevelent when people have been councilors for 25 to 30 years.

  11. John Reid says:

    Les abbey, you say Anthony hasn’t an answer. ,but his analysis, that labour did well in the 2nd -5th of the last 7 council election as they were close to the 3 general elections. That we won, hits the mark, I would have thought Tagging in the Black labour was an answer,

  12. What is very clear is that by the next election the economy will have stagnated. There will be little growth and the deficit will be stubbornly high. All three main parties will (as this article suggests) say that the solution will be yet more cuts. Or worse. If Labour wants to get power, it needs to be different from the other two, otherwise the public will simply vote tribally.

    The “worse” I mention, are user charges. The Tories have been very careful not to mention user charges, but Labour (in the form of the utterly reprehensible Liam Byrne) are openly flirting with the idea by promoting the “contributory principle”. Let’s face it, where is the social solidarity in the “contributory principle”? Byrne is suggesting that the welfare state is a savings scheme, with the state as the administrator of the savings. If Labour goes down that route, then a century of progressive politics will have been wiped out in a single swoop. (Labour, of course, have “form” here: with student tuition fees they wiped out half a century of progressive policy towards higher education.)

    At the next election we will have an NHS close to collapse. Social care will already have collapsed, as Pickles’ cuts will have bankrupted the private care home providers that Labour brought in to squeeze out the state, and with no state providers, vulnerable service users will have nowhere to turn. A collapsed social care system will have a severe knock-on effect on healthcare. Next winter there will be an NHS crisis – ask anyone who works in a hospital about the situation right now: we are teetering on crisis, but since its at the beginning of the financial year, the service is just about surviving. Next winter will be different and the NHS will need a bailout from the Treasury.

    So what will the Tories and LDs reach for at the next election? User charges. A charge to see your GP. Patient fines. Top-ups, so the NHS pays the basic and patients top-up. Seems far fetched? Well, it is happening right now in Spain. And the Coalition has already said that patients with long term conditions will be “offered” personal healthcare budgets in 2014. That “offer” will most likely be compulsory if, as is likely, we have an NHS financial crisis next winter.

    So what can Labour do that is different? A deficit is caused by spending more than you take in through tax. By 2015 it will be clear that cutting spending will have failed. Labour need to put the case to raise taxes. There is a post-war cohort who did not fight in the war, but benefitted from free higher education, free healthcare, full employment and a booming housing market. Labour has to make the case to tax this cohort – through inheritance tax, or some kind of after-death property tax. The party must make the argument that health and social care needs this money, and without it, the alternative would be Tory (or LD) user charges: “a tax on the sick”. Andy Burnham suggested a payment from estates at the last election. It was dubbed the “death tax”, so the argument must be “death tax” vs “tax on the sick”: which do you think the public will choose?

    A failed NHS can deliver a Labour government. But to do so Miliband has to reach out to those people who do not vote. There is a whopping 40% of voters who choose not to vote, these are people who feel isolated by the state, they are predominantly the users of NHS and social care. It is ludicrous to try to get a few percent of voters off the LDs or Tories by offering a slightly less conservative version of their policies. If Labour aims to run a “35% strategy” then get the extra 6% from those who do not vote rather than persuading people to switch. Look to a “new market” because the competition for those voters is less and the potential is that Labour could exceed the 35% level by a significant margin.

  13. a says:

    Labour’s *second* biggest negative is economic trust.
    Labour’s biggest negative is Miliband.

  14. McCurry says:

    I think that Gordon Brown did a fantastic job of holding the Tories off in 2010 by promising to spend our way out of recession. Anthony acknowledges that History has since proven Gordon Brown right on that.
    What Miliband has done is get frightened of promising to spend. He speaks about regaining the trust of the British people, then he keeps his policy secret. Why should they trust him?

  15. Ex-Labour says:

    Labour is on the opposite side of public opinion on every issue. They are trying to make an intellectual arguement around issues such as immigration, welfare spending etc and its not working. The public do not trust them – full stop.

    The UKIP surge may be temporary because the Conservatives will learn from it, in fact they have already started to look at their policies according to the media. I’m not a UKIP supporter but there can be no doubt they have touched a nerve with the focus on everyday issues that affect peoples lives.

    Meanwhile Miliband has backed himself and Labour into a corner and the fact that Labour has no policies came through loud and clear to the electorate during that classic radion interview. When you start screeching at the interviewer and telling them they don’t understand but fail to answer any policy questions I’m afraid the games up and Ed’s luck has just run out.

  16. John Reid says:

    McCurry, yes Labours view in 2010 was not to cut to quick to spends to get our way out of a recession that doesn’t mean we bought the pre 76 view of buying our way out of debt, but ,In defence of Ed promsing not to spend now, it’s te Thatcher. U turn idea in 81 ,as cutting. Had caused a recession If we’d spent then it would have meant the 2 years of suffering upto that point would have been wasted as we’d already had the bad times and it would have been for nothing if inflation had still be high after doing the u turn in 81′

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