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