by David Talbot
When the shadow chancellor declared on Sky’s Dermot Murnaghan programme that Labour was winning the economic argument, one can be forgiven for thinking that not even he believed the words he had just uttered.
He certainly hadn’t convinced the Commons the Thursday before, standing up to a wall of noise the previously iron-clad shadow chancellor delivered a puce-faced riposte that fell flat in the chamber and barely reverberated outside. Osborne, grinning and preening himself like his newly purchased cat, luxuriated in his adversary’s obvious discomfort – recognising not only the personal but the political challenges the shadow chancellor has to slay.
And, earlier today, at the year’s final PMQs, the sight of rows of silent, doleful Labour MPs, arms folded, as the prime minister ran through his stand-up repartee at Ed Balls’ expense, told its own story.
After three years of stagnation, the economy is showing tentative signs of recovery. Growth may be unbalanced and anaemic, but the threat of returning recession has been averted. A change of mood is altering the terms of political argument in British politics, and with it Labour’s much-heralded ‘cost of living’ campaign appears increasingly redundant.
To say the least, it remains highly questionable as to whether the living standards argument will enable Labour to make incursions into the electorate where the party’s appeal has so far been rather limited. The voters Labour have to win over to achieve outright victory in 2015 appear far less persuaded about its core arguments on the ‘cost of living crisis’, and are increasingly optimistic about the general state of the economy.
Labour has done nowhere near enough to address the basic charge of economic mismanagement; from the ludicrously long leadership hustings, which allowed the coalition government an unrivalled opportunity to set the political narrative for four whole months, to Balls’ stupid delight in his ‘flat-lining’ gesture, the damage has been done and is yet to be repaired. Voters may have been prepared to rethink some now entrenched assumptions about Labour’s responsibility for the economic crisis, but only if the party showed that it too was rethinking and reflecting, including being humble about its own failings.