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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear