Believe it or not, Labour has a good-ish story to tell

Today’s growth figures confirm the recession is over -- for now.

So, it's confirmed. We didn't slip back into negative growth in the first quarter of 2010 and we have -- so far! -- dodged the deadly "double-dip" recession.

From the Guardian:

The Office for National Statistics said its first estimate of GDP for January to March showed growth of 0.2 per cent following 0.4 per cent growth in the final quarter of 2009. Economists had predicted growth on average of 0.4 per cent, although predictions in a Reuters poll had ranged from 0.2 per cent to 0.5 per cent, with some forecasters warning January's harsh weather could have knocked output.

The article, however, goes on to point out:

Economists said the growth figure was likely to be revised higher when the ONS issues two more detailed estimates in May and June once it has collated more data.

That is exactly what happened in March when GPD growth for the last quarter of 2009 was revised up to 0.4 per cent, from an initial estimate of 0.1 per cent. So, it's not all bad news.

In fact, this has been a week of economic clouds for Labour -- but each with a silver lining. The growth figure was not as high as hoped for, but, let's be frank, at least there was growth (and the BBC's Stephanie Flanders highlights the "stonking 0.7 per cent estimate for growth" in manufacturing, which is, she says, "the strongest quarterly performance for that part of the economy in many years").

Unemployment hit a 14-year high but the claimant count continued to fall -- and you'd be twice as likely to be on the dole in the 1980s as you are today. And the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the Budget deficit in 2009-1010, while a record for peacetime at £163bn, was more than £3bn lower than anticipated.

Oh, and while Ken Clarke invoked the spectre of an IMF bailout to fearmonger about the prospects of a hung parliament, the IMF itself released a report that implicitly backed Labour's fiscal strategy. In its influential World Economic Outlook report, the IMF said that the west's economies were too weak for spending cuts, concluding: "In most advanced economies, fiscal and monetary policies should maintain a supportive thrust in 2010 to sustain growth and employment." Bad luck, Ken.

On the non-economic front, the latest statistics from the British Crime Survey and the police show that crime is down by 7 per cent, despite the recession. "The British Crime Survey shows the risk of being a victim of crime is at the lowest level in almost 30 years," said Keith Bristow, head of crime at the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).

Net migration is falling, according to the ONS. Households are better off in 2010 than they were in 1997, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Higher spending has "improved quality" in the NHS, according the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance election report. And so on . . .

Let's not be under any illusions -- or get carried away. This Labour government screwed up a lot (especially abroad), and could have achieved wide-ranging and irrevocable social-democratic and constitutional reforms to the UK had it chosen to do so. Attlee achieved more in six years than Blair and Brown achieved in 13. And so there is no doubt in my mind that, overall, the party squandered its 13 years in office and its large Commons majorities.

But, nonetheless, it has a good-ish story to tell in this particular post-crash, post-expenses election -- despite the broken-Britain/bankrupt-Britain propaganda pushed by the Tories and their supporters in the right-wing press.

So why don't Brown and co tell it? As Steve Richards of the Independent points out:

Labour is seeking a fourth term. As David Miliband has put it, his party is making "a massive ask". Such a quest would be challenging at the best of times. After a recession and the expenses scandal, this is not by any means the best of times. In such circumstances it should be seeking to set the agenda ever hour of every day. Brown and members of the cabinet (what happened to the idea of presenting Labour as an experienced team?) should be at early-morning press conferences, mid-afternoon press conferences, rallies, and giving interviews around the clock.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories