Memo to Ed and Ed: ignore the call to embrace austerity

The New-Labour, me-too approach on cuts is a political and economic dead end.

Jim Murphy, long regarded as the leading Blairite in Ed Miliband's shadow cabinet, has attracted a handful of headlines today with his Guardian interview, in which he says Labour must have "genuine credibility" on the economy and reveals that he would accept £5bn of Tory defence cuts.

The shadow defence secretary tells Nick Watt:

It is important to be both credible and popular when it comes to defence investment and the economics of defence. There is a difference between populism and popularity. Credibility is the bridge away from populism and towards popularity. It is difficult to sustain popularity without genuine credibility. At a time on defence when the government is neither credible nor popular it is compulsory that Labour is both.

"Genuine credibility". A phrase right up there with Paul Krugman's "Very Serious People". Don't get me wrong. I support cuts to the UK's defence budget. And, of course, credibility is self-evidently important. But Murphy and his fellow Labour deficit hawks have outsourced the definition of credibility to the Tory party, the right-wing press and neoclassical economists. After all, is "genuine credibility" secured through growth of 0.5 per cent? Or unemployment at 2.6 million? Yet, bizarrely, despite the economy tanking, and Osborne's deficit-reduction plans falling apart, an increasing number of New Labour figures are buying into the Tory narrative on the deficit and embracing their right-wing opponents' monomaniacal obsession with deficit reduction over economic growth and job creation.

As Watt notes:

The timing of Murphy's intervention is significant in domestic and international terms. On the domestic front it comes just as key Labour figures express doubts about the party's economic strategy. These concerns were highlighted in a pamphlet by Lord Mandelson's Policy Network think tank last month which criticised the "vagueness" of Labour's deficit reduction plans.

But embracing austerity is bad politics and bad economics. It is a strategy (if one can call it that despite the fact that I have yet to hear how it will help Labour present a convincing and appealing alternative (yes, alternative!) to the Tories' failed austerity agenda) premised on a myth: that Labour went into the last general election opposed to cuts and committed to higher levels of public spending. This is nonsense. Alistair Darling's plan to halve the deficit over four years was enshrined in the Labour manifesto - to the irritation of some on the centre-left (like Polly Toynbee, David Blanchflower and, er, me!) In fact, Darling went as far as to claim that Labour planned to make "deeper and tougher" cuts than Margaret Thatcher made in the eighties. It's a fiscal strategy that was then adopted by the two Eds, Balls and Miliband, despite the fact that it muddied the ideological and policy water between the Conservatives and Labour and has since enabled coalition ministers to defend their draconian austerity measures with a version of: "Well, Labour's own figures show they would have had to cut almost as much as we are."

If the two Eds, egged on by the likes of Murphy, now truly believe Labour can win the economic argument with a "we want cuts too, but not just yet and not as many", and by going beyond Darling, they are living in a fantasy world. Politically, austerity-lite won't cut it with the voters. Economically, it won't work in spurring much-needed growth (see here, here, here and here). It is time, as a wise man once said, for Labour to say that deficits aren't "immoral" and make the argument that "sometimes deficits are necessary to serve the society you live in". (Interestingly, the wise man in question was David, not Ed, Miliband, during the Labour leadership contest of 2010).

In fact, in today's Guardian panel on "what Ed needs to do now", columnist Zoe Williams hits the nail on the head:

The problem with Ed Miliband's opposition is not that they won't admit their past mistakes but that they don't articulate properly either their mea culpas or their triumphs. A simple graph, rendered in word form (preferably spoken by Miliband himself, rather than Balls) would demonstrate that there was no systemic deficit problem before the crash, and the upkick that made the spending look dangerous was due to the banking crisis. Then they could legitimately apologise for failing to regulate banking; point out that the coalition hasn't regulated it either and we're still subject to the same risks; and mention, furthermore, that Gordon Brown averted disaster over that period. . . If they won't make that case, they are just left tugging at the threads of the austerity drive, which comes across as unconstructive and watery.

To abandon opposition to cuts, as those cuts begin to bite, as voters back a slowdown in the deficit-reduction programme and as more and more data shows that austerity is killing the British economy, is just madness. The New-Labour, me-too approach on cuts is a political and economic dead end and, in my view, best ignored.

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.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era