Balls is no Churchill

by Jonathan Todd

Politics, as Churchill said, is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. Much of the theatre of politics exists, however, in the unanticipated events to which Macmillan attributed the failure of political plans. While, to paraphrase Lennon, politics is what happens when you are making other plans, plans are politically necessary and should be attuned to the likely and inevitable.

Political tacticians specialise in events. Political strategists identify trends and plan accordingly. The character of politicians is revealed in their handling of events but they are exposed without convincing strategy. And the strategic context that was obvious from the outset of this parliament was the politics of the deficit.

We might have thought in May 2010 that the government’s economic strategy of tough deficit reduction would fail and the public would then turn to Labour. Perhaps we thought that this strategy would fail, causing the government to adopt the Plan B that Labour called for and the public to conclude that Labour was right all along.

Few seriously thought that things would work out precisely as George Osborne forecast in his hopelessly optimistic 2010 budget. The real debate was always about whether this failure in itself would be enough to return support to Labour.

Unsurprisingly, Osborne has not said: “Ed Balls was always right”. We don’t need the spending review to know, however, that the government is failing. But polling published by Labour List contains scant evidence that this failure builds support for Labour on the economy.

As Osborne scraps around to increase the capital budget and Vince Cable cobbles together the kind of active industrial strategy that he previously denounced, agreement with Balls is implicit in their actions. Government policy inches towards Plan B but recognition that this constitutes a Plan B is politically impossible.

The debate seems rhetorically frozen in binary choices: back the government if you think immediate cuts are necessary, back Labour if you don’t; back the government if you think excessive Labour spending explains the need for cuts, back Labour if you don’t. But these choices are too simplistic to be persuasive.

The broad mass of the electorate appreciate that the crash wasn’t caused by the schools and hospitals built by the last government. But they also feel that wasteful spending is now even less tolerable than ever. The notion of wasteful spending appeals to another distinction that the public intuitively understand: not all public spending is as useful or as useless as other kinds.

While most of the public feel taxed enough as it is, there is an acceptance, which the popular revulsion against Starbucks and Google has confirmed, that another way that we can make the sums add up is through tax collection. By whatever means public money is raised, however, the public want that money spent efficiently, which is why the argument that the NHS is safe under the Tories because of the ring-fence is a hallow claim. The public know that what you do with the money matters as much as how much you have at your disposal.

An alternative Labour platform capable of stirring the economic debate out of its binary gridlock has long lain dormant in these public perceptions. We might have shown recognition of the need for cuts by identifying a raft of cuts to current spending that we’d accept.

We might have committed to redirect some of this spending to capital spending, arguing that this does more to boost growth and showing an appreciation that some forms of spending are more important than others.

We might have saved some cuts by dropping the ring-fences and advanced a politics where achievement is judged by outcomes, not by how much is spent.

We might have argued that public finances and growth would be best served by reducing tax on earned income and increasing tax on unearned wealth.

All of these would have been bold choices if Labour had of made them earlier in this parliament. All of them are now, though, becoming conventional wisdom, as the predictable failure of government policy drives thinking on its recalibration.

Osborne wants to shift current to capital spending. Cable wants to increase wealth taxation and reduce income tax on the lowest earners, while cutting winter fuel allowance payments to the richest pensioners. Tony Dolphin of the IPPR wants to drop the ring-fences.

Labour’s failure to lead earlier on these issues means that Ed Balls’ set piece economic speech was insufficient to take ownership of them. We’ve failed to understand politics as Churchill did.

His point is not simply about being prepared for eventuality but about seeming to lead debate. This means properly identifying trends, anticipating what they will mean for debate and getting ahead of this debate.

Of course, you look daft if you falsely read a trend. But the failure to take a calculated risk on where debate is going brings with it the risk that others will take ownership of debate before you do.

That the stuff of what would have been an eye-catching Labour agenda a year or so ago increasingly forms a cross-party consensus is indicative of this.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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4 Responses to “Balls is no Churchill”

  1. james says:

    You people just don’t get it – it’s not that people love the coalition it’s just that they think that they’re doing the best in very trying circumstances while Labour snipe from the sidelines.

    Since 2010 Lab have tried to run with two horses – a) all cuts are evil and b) we’ll cut less than the tories. The problem is that the activists schadenfreude got the better of strategy to gain local election seats from the Lib Dems.

    Now they want to suddenly change tack by pretending Lab are for all the things that people like while if only those dastardly tories/lib dems hadn’t scuppered our plans we wouldn’t have had to have xxx cut.

    Unfortunately it’s too late. Labour, rightly or wrongly, are seen as the lazy party for benefit scroungers that will say anything (and in my area do anything) to gain power. Having played the old-fashioned game of `when in opposition have no responsibility` they’re fast learning that the rules have changed and that now floating voters EXPECT a coherent economic policy. The fact that Labour didn’t realise this tells most voters what they already know – Labour might be all things to all men and women but they won’t make the hard choices for generations to come.

  2. Leslie48 says:

    I think I kind of know what your getting at but its all about the big message…the easy to grasp narrative of how we convince the electorate that Tory politics & economics is never going to deliver a better UK.

    I believe the ‘One Nation’ theme is an effective one because we can show our solutions are based on delivering to most British groups – the squeezed middle in the private sector , the aspirational couples having to pay high rents to wealthy landlords, the victims be they the redundant high street jobless, jobless women or jobless youth or worried students, or demoralized public service employees in schools & hospitals, the south west, London area , Midlands, the regions, ‘a rainbow’ if you like of all those feeling uneasy with this coalition. The aging anti-Tory voters will grow as the true nature of the serious crisis in the hospitals leaks out. We have to be the party that reminds people of the massive tax avoidance, of low wages, of lack of investment in technology and the massive growth in inequality symbolized by tax reductions for the millionaires as we cut payments to the victims who seek out food charity.

    Its how we bring this narrative together, combine the growing protest at the UK’s appalling social gaps with the economic solutions for lifting our growth, exports and skills level. I know something : Labour’s narrative cannot just be technocratic its needs emotion too- Tony Blair was I think in part incorrect a few months ago – we do have to expose the cracks and ugliness of our visibly dividing society. We must have the confidence that the Southern or Middle class voter or elderly will hear the message of an alternative which is a One Nation Britain.

  3. Clr Ralph baldwin says:

    Well based upon the amount of taxpayers money senior figures in Labour have paid to employ their rich mates in opposition as opposed to doing anything at all constructive, Labour ARE the Party of scroungers lol.

  4. Leslie48 says:

    And the information Labour can use goes on piling up: so today 1) “There is an overwhelming business case for maximising women’s contribution to growth,” the Women’s Business Council says. BBC site. If women were represented in the same numbers as men in the workforce, GDP growth would be up to 10% higher by 2030, the study claims.

    2) also today on BBC site : The average middle-income family in Britain is likely to be nearly £1,800 a year worse-off by 2015, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). The evidence is overwhelming Labour has to use the arguments showing the big gaps in our society and economy. Easy really.

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