It is a paradox that the coalition building skills necessary to be a successful party leader are often not the skills of persuasive and decisive determination necessary to be a successful prime minister. Sadly, it seems that Ed Miliband may not have the attributes to be succesful in either role. Miliband is certainly ill-served by his advisors, because the 2012 pay negotiations for public sector workers are of the absolutely highest importance for the key union leaders of UNITE, GMB and UNISON. Yet these key pillars of his own support are the very people that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have sought a confrontation with.
So how did we end up where we are?
An objective observer over the last few weeks would have looked at Ed Ball’s economic policy, and thought that the relatively cautious five point plan was sufficiently differentiated from Osborne’s austerity measures that Labour could electorally benefit over the medium term from the failure of Osborne’s economic incompetance. The same objective observer would look at Labour’s standing in the polls and conclude that while not exactly dynamic, Ed Miliband was quietly bringing home the bacon.
At one level, the economic policy remains in place; but in politics presentation and content are not so easily seperated. While Ed Balls continues to say that the coalition’s austerity programme is cutting too far and too fast, he effectively surrendered his position, by conceding that the government’s policy of pay restraint in the public sector is justified. As this will be popularly understood, this means Labour is joining the chorus that the deficit is caused by profligate public spending.
In fact of course, the deficit was not caused by excessive spending, as I have argued before the deficit was caused by falling tax income. Figures from HM Treasury clearly shows that over the last ten years government spending and income have both risen together, due to economic growth and inflation. The increasing deficit (gap between income and expenditure) since 2007 has not been due to an increase in public spending, but due to a decrease in tax receipts due to the recession, resulting from a vicious circle of increasing benefit payments, increased debt servicing requirements, and reduced economic activity. The record of the last Labour government was not profligate, and the global recession has impacted the economies of both high spending and low spending nations.
This was an argument that the Labour Party, aided by the wider Labour movement could have won through persistance; combined with patient advocacy of government action to nurture a recovery, especially by encouraging productive investment.
Instead, we have faced weeks of sniping from the Blairites. As Owen Jones reports:
Arch-Blairite Jim Murphy – who harbours ambitions to stand for leadership should Ed Miliband fail – began rolling out the new strategy earlier in the month by calling for Labour to avoid ‘shallow and temporary’ populism over spending cuts, setting out his own proposed cuts as an example to his colleagues. The equally devout Blairite shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has partly endorsed Michael Gove’s attacks on the scrapped Building Schools for Future programme, and has outlined £2bn of his own cuts. And Liam Byrne has committed Labour to a renewed attack on the welfare state, currently being hacked to pieces by the Government. I bet the word ‘vindicated’ will be used liberally around the corridors of Conservative Campaign Headquarters next week.
There were always two aspects to Blairism. One was a strategy for winning elections based upon triangulating around contentious issues to appeal to swing voters in marginal constituencies; but the other was a genuine commitment to improving public services, and seeking to address social exclusion, through emphasis on mutuality and community. Nothwithstanding the criticisms that we on the left would have of the Blair years, there was a massive expansion of spending in education and health, to take just two examples. However, in the face of a recession there is no room for triangulating around the austerity consensus of the Tories and the Liberal allies, it needs to be opposed; otherwise Labour is forced to abandon its own commitment to a better society, and decent pubic services.
The clever wheeze of the Blairites is to seek to win an election against the Tories by agreeing with them! Unfortunately, not only has Ed Miliband faced a right wing majority in the parliamentary party, but also in the shadow cabinet, and he is increasingly opposed by the Guardian. What is more the shadowy party within the party, Progress, extensively lobbies to destabilise Ed Miliband, seeking to steer the party back to a Blairite agenda.
What is lacking is any organised counterbalance, especially since Compass effectively discredited itself by issuing a fudged endorsement of tactical voting for the Lib Dems in the 2010 general election, which reduced their credibility on the centre left. All the pressure on Ed Miliband has come from one direction.
That is why the forthright comments from Paul Kenny and Len Macluskey are to be welcomed, and I understand that Dave Prentis has also gone to consult the UNISON Labour Link committee.
Unfortunately an opportunity has been missed. Up until this weekend it would still have been posible to build a centre left coalition within the party, including key trade union leaders, around the project of shoring Ed Miliband up against his Blairite detractors. That chance has now been missed.
So why didn’t that happen? Perhaps due to accident: that such a coalition would require a figurehead MP who is both acceptable to the left, and also credibly committed to pursuing a mainstream electoral victory. The obvious contender would be Jon Trickett, except that he is in the shadow cabinet, and thus ruled out from such a role. Perhaps also because the unions have been circumspect at not being seen to indulge in damaging factionalism.
However, the challenge is greater than ever. The centre left and the trade unions need to push back against the Blairites, and that means providing some organisational form to counterbalance Progress. The left needs to define our own economic and political narrative, that is both unifying for the party and electorally credible; then we need to fight for those ideas in the party.