Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is taking consensus too far, says Michael Wilson
It wasn’t what you’d call a Kennedy assassination moment, but I shall always remember where I was when the shock news came in on the BBC website . I was just sitting down at my computer to write this article. And there it was on my screen, as large as life and twice as ugly.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, had been spotted eating a burger at his desk. Not just any old burger, but an exclusive ‘posh burger’ which had been summoned from the kitchens of somewhere called Byron at the PSBR-busting cost of £10. The Daily Mail gasped at his blatantly un-plebeian tastes. As it had also done over last October’s ticket upgrade shenanigans, when Osborne had paid a £160 excess for the privilege of not having to share a short train journey with standard class passengers.
Forgive me for observing that any ordinary burger will set you back £7 in any pub by the time you’ve added a dozen chips. It wasn’t exactly Bullingdon Club fare. And any serious businessman would have travelled first class without very much thought. But this sort of thing, it seems, is about as near as anyone gets these days to laying a political glove on Mr Osborne. And it just isn’t good enough.
Somebody Should Tell The Queen
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have it in for George – any more than I had it in for Labour’s Alistair Darling who preceded him. It’s nothing personal George, but it’s part of my function as a British journalist to bite your legs and keep you focused on the job. I don’t want to see our media backsliding to the obsequious levels of the French press, which will routinely avoid criticising anything that those in power decide to do.
(Thus silently allowing several generations of French politicians to get away with serial affairs, dodgy contacts, backhanders, gifts of diamonds and every other sort of impropriety. And all the while, studiously ignoring the perennial budget deficit, the pensions overhang, the loss of government authority and the sheer blinkered panoply of Parisian government incompetence….)
No, I prefer to think we do things a bit better in this country when it comes to giving the Chancellor a hard time. Germany, Benelux and much of southern Europe may have their devious politicians who slither and slide between perpetually shifting alliances, and who somehow keep their politicians on the leash by implying that they might choose to vote another way. America’s congressmen are simply bloody-minded in their doctrinaire determination to block each other’s plans, however excellent they may be – while simultaneously collaring as much earmarked cash as possible for their own constituencies, of course. But in Britain we do things differently.
Instead, we have something called Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Having chopped Charles the First’s head off in the 17th century and declared a pseudo-republic with a nominal royal family that sits like the decoration on the top of the constitutional cake, we reckon it’s pretty important that the opposition party of the day should doff its cap politely to the monarch and then get stuck straight in with the knives. It’s our own version of democracy, and it works jolly well.
Going To The Dogs
But something horrible has been happening recently. All of the Chancellor’s fiscal plans have gone awry, and all the Loyal Opposition is doing about it is performing a noddy-dog impression of Churchill the insurance bulldog. Welfare cutbacks? “Ooooooh yesssss.” Wariness about an encroaching Europe? “Aaaaaah, you’ve got to watch those mandarins, you know.” Removing benefits for the wealthy retired? “Eeeeeh, you know it makes sense.” Public sector job cuts? “Awwwwwww – hey hang on, not so sure about that one? But hey, at least you’re going easy on the redundancies.”
Everything, in short, except for barking and biting, which is what a proper bulldog ought to do. Oh, for sure, shadow chancellor Ed Balls stands up every so often to blame the parlous state of the country on his adversary. But what’s odd is that he never gets his formidably intellectual teeth into Mr Osborne’s backside with any workable alternatives.
You think I’m exaggerating? Consider what Labour leader Ed Miliband said in June, when he told a meeting in Newham, London, that a future Labour government wouldn’t try to reverse Mr Osborne’s child benefit cuts after all, and that it would implement a regional benefit cap. You could almost hear Ed Balls’s wife Yvette Cooper grinding her teeth, since that had been one of her own favourite hobby-horses up until that point. But it was no good. The Labour front bench had bowed to the yoke of history, and it was quietly agreeing with the Chancellor. The shame of it.
Worse, Miliband actually put helpful words into Osborne’s mouth. “If we are going to turn our economy round, protect our NHS and build a stronger country,” he said, “we will have to be laser focused on how we spend every single pound. Social security spending, vital as it is, cannot be exempt from that discipline.”
Voters were losing some of their faith in the state’s fairness, Miliband said, when they saw that “some people get something for nothing and other people get nothing for something – no reward for the years of contribution they make”. The Daily Mail couldn’t have put it better,
Mr Balls had already said that he wouldn’t attempt to reverse Osborne’s day-to-day spending cuts if he ever became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Or not in the first year of his tenure, anyway. Rather, he would impose an “iron discipline” on public spending, which he seemed to suggest was what any sensible Chancellor from either party would do. And even if he did decide to splurge £10 billion on new projects, such as a major house-building project, it wouldn’t be allowed to increase the deficit because the extra spending would have to be funded either by cuts elsewhere or – horrors! – higher taxes.
And that veiled threat of tax increases was about as close as the shadow chancellor ever got to invoking the spirit of Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock. Otherwise, he sounded about as left-wing as a Monday Club meeting.
All of which is a bit of a pity, because Mr Osborne is defending a wide open economic goal at the moment, and Mr Balls is supposed to be the opposition’s key striker. Labour could probably have slipped a tidy hat-trick past him by now if only Ferguson had been in charge. But somehow it hasn’t happened.
Let’s look at the record, although it’s started to sound like a badly cracked disc by now. Instead of getting us swiftly out of the economic mire, as George had promised us when the Conservatives were elected in 2010, he’s been forced to admit that not only is the budget not in balance yet – the deficit still hasn’t begun the shrinking process.
The OECD and the International Monetary Fund have been telling the Chancellor that his bone-headed insistence on austerity is dampening investment and slowing the process of economic recovery. As if we couldn’t have guessed all that from the fact that banks are still not lending to businesses despite three campaigns (count’em) to reboot the investment economy.
Then the Office for National Statistics announced at the end of June that it had inconveniently recalculated our backdated economic performance to show that our economy is still 3.9% smaller than it was before the 2008 crisis – compared with its previous estimates of a 2.6% shrinkage. (Independent estimates, on the other hand, have put the shrinkage closer to 6%, but that’s another story.)
Unemployment won’t seem to budge. Consumers aren’t spending. And the revised ONS statistics appear, bizarrely, to suggest that productivity per employed worker is also worse than it was in 2007. So why isn’t George getting slaughtered by the Loyal Opposition in Westminster?
Out of Ideas
As the Financial Times’s brilliant political columnist Janan Ganesh pointed out the other week, the great thing about Osborne is that he can deliver bad news with impunity because his personal political stock is already so low that he literally can’t get any more unpopular than he is. He has become the Norman Tebbit of the new era. Which is saying quite a lot.
But that alone doesn’t explain why Balls and his team keep on hitting the woodwork. Indeed, why they so seldom plan a strike at the Tory goal at all. Could it be that they simply don’t have an alternative?
Well, we can be sure that the shadow chancellor won’t get far with traditional Keynesian principles. At a time when Japan and the Eurozone are both reaping the fiscal whirlwind for three solid decades of free spending, the very idea of trying to refloat Britannia’s boat with lashings of borrowed cash is pretty much a non-starter. So Balls’s refusal to expand the government deficit with his proposals for house-building aren’t exactly a surprise.
Nor does Labour have very many negative things to say about the virtues of the capitalist system. It’s been 23 years since the party ditched Clause Four of its constitution, in which it committed itself to the retention of state ownership. And we’d have to add that, under ‘electable’ Tony Blair’s government (1997), the headlong drive into private ownership did nothing but accelerate.
Labour confesses itself to be confused about the merits of quantitative easing – which is an inflationary expansion of the money supply by another name, if you think about it. And the idea that the three great nations that have tried QE are essentially conservative – Japan, Britain, and, yes, Obama’s America – has only muddied the pool and obscured the old class differences.
Which is not to say that Labour is thinking wrongly. The world has moved on since Keir Hardie, and even since Neil Kinnock. The profit principle is here to stay, because it works. It’s just that a Loyal Opposition is supposed to be working a bit harder than this.
Through The Looking Glass
So what’s the problem? My feeling, for what it’s worth, is that Mr Balls and Mr Miliband both know that the game is up for the Labour Party of the last century. Let’s not forget that Balls was educated at Harvard, and capitalism is in his intellectual blood. But the two Eds know that they can’t sell that kind of modernism to the grass roots of their party. So they sit there like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, looking at times as if they wish they were somewhere else.
Ironically, the same sort of charade is going on across the floor at the Palace of Westminster. And here, George has worries of his own. Like his boss David Cameron, he has reason to fear that UKIP may steal the party’s votes at the next election and make Britain properly ungovernable.
And Cameron for his part is also afraid of losing his own grass roots by getting too warm toward Europe. So a few timely sops to the Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells contingent, most notably in the form of kicks against Europe, will keep enough of the party faithful onside to maintain order.
Stealing the Enemy’s Clothes
And that’s where we get to the weird bit. Osborne has had the sublime wit to steal his enemies’ clothes – and so far, amazingly, he’s getting away with it.
In his Budget speech back in March, the Chancellor took a cheeky potshot at Labour for having allowed the fat-banker culture to proliferate in the City. Which was fair, insofar as the headiest stage of the bonus bonanza had taken place under Labour’s auspices in the early noughties. But also unfair, insofar as it was Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson who had created the banker triumphalism of the Loadsamoney era in the first place.
The environment? The higher taxes on wealthy pensioners? All that was borrowed straight from the Liberal Democrats. Immigration policy? Another own goal for Labour, whose idea it originally was to limit the inbound flow from outside (and sometimes inside) the EU.
Transport policy? Wasn’t it always Labour policy to build the infrastructure that would make Britain great? And didn’t Osborne’s spending review on 26th June come down hard in favour of prioritising it? Even though he knew that the high speed rail link to Birmingham and beyond (HSR2) would have the Tories’ own safe constituencies frothing at the mouth?
A nice touch, George. HSR2 is still a long way from the first spade being dug into the ground, but as a way of demonstrating that the government had neither fear nor favour, it was a winner. Put it all together, and you start to understand why the two Labour leaders have had such a hard time keeping up with this remarkably slippery Chancellor.