Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 June 2013
The two big policy speeches by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls last week have not transformed the political landscape.
No one outside the political class noticed them – and the reaction within the political class was low-key and predictable. The usual suspects said the usual things. The far left and the Tory right proclaimed that Miliband and Balls had performed a U-turn to adopt the policies of the coalition government – committing Labour to austerity and abandoning the principle of universalism in the welfare state. Hardline Blairites sniffed at the failure of the two Eds to take a truly tough position on reducing government debt and pruning the welfare bill: they had shown they were was still beholden to the trade unions and left-wing activists who got Miliband elected as leader in 2010, and there was nothing of substance in what they said.
So has Labour embraced austerity or not? Actually, it has done neither and both. What happened last week was that Labour shifted into pre-election mode. After two-and-a-half years of repeatedly making the point that Labour wouldn’t have started from here, the party leadership is now talking about what it will do if it wins in 2015. Like it or loath it, by then we will have had five years of coalition austerity – and the room for manoeuvre for an incoming Labour government will be severely constrained. Miliband and Balls were simply relaying the message that if they win they won’t go mad, the very first prerequisite of a successful general election campaign.
Some say that it’s not before time for Labour to present itself as an alternative government, others that the Eds have moved too soon – that the economy and politics are in such flux, the next two years so unpredictable, that firming up Labour’s programme now will create big hostages to fortune. For what it’s worth, I think they’ve timed it about right. Until very recently, there was at least the possibility of a government U-turn on austerity or a debilitating split in the coalition, which made the lightness of Labour’s baggage an advantage. It now seems that George Osborne intends to stick to his script, and the coalition appears robust enough to survive until 2015 – though it might not – so it makes sense for Labour to get its act together.
Whether the messages the two Eds have chosen to highlight are the right ones is another matter. “We’ll not splash out on the social security budget and we’ll keep a strict watch on overall public spending” is not the stuff to set the pulse racing – and there wasn’t much else beyond Balls’s cack-handed indication that some universal benefits enjoyed by pensioners would be means-tested.
Miliband’s hint that Labour will come up with ways to revitalise the contributory element in social security benefits is a step in the right direction, as is his identification of housing benefit as a scandalously wasteful subsidy to petty rentier capitalists (as his dad would have described them). But he didn't flesh out what Labour would actually do about either. Are we talking a return to earnings-related unemployment benefit as it existed in the 1970s – or an extra 25 quid a week for people who have worked 30 years and are made redundant? Is it strict rent controls and a three-year emergency programme of putting up council pre-fabs – or is it tax-breaks for the construction industry to build blocks of luxury flats with the odd “affordable” broom cupboard with a view of the car park?
OK, I’m not really expecting a return to earnings-related dole, and there are problems with enforcing rent controls. But if Labour is saying that it is going to have to deal with the circumstances it inherits from this disastrous government in 2015, it needs to leaven the dour – it’s going to be tough – with a compelling story of how it could be different.
So far, the vision thing is absent: Labour looks and sounds timid and unadventurous, driven by focus groups and opinion polls that tell it to play safe.
Labour won in 1997 on “safety first”, but things are different now. We’re in the middle of the worst depression since the 1930s, and there is a sullen anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-scrounger mood among the voters that cannot be ignored. Labour needs to offer hope, and it isn’t doing it.