Credibility is Labour leader’s hygiene factor

New leader needs to convince people that the deficit was not mismanagement but a way of avoiding a d

Pat McFadden MP was absolutely right to argue today that if Labour only opposes cuts there is a "danger of being tuned out by the electorate". But in many ways, the electorate has tuned Labour out already and the challenge is to tune it back in.

Being credible on the deficit is now a hygiene factor for Labour's next leader. All the candidates, and Labour's frontbenchers, are leading opposition to the unfairness of the Budget and the cuts to come in October's Spending Review. This is politically necessary, but not politically sufficient. Labour will get elected again, not on the determination of its opposition, but on the credibility of its alternative.

The perceived wisdom of the 1992 shadow Budget is that setting out proposals in opposition for necessary tax rises -- or indeed, spending cuts -- is political suicide. But it was a significant move this week from Ed Balls that started this debate, after he told the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg that it was a "mistake" for Labour to promise to halve the deficit in four years.

It was a major scoop for her, but did he mean to go public with this view? He hasn't yet said what his alternative would be and so has left himself a credibility gap for the other candidates to probe at the next hustings, in London this Friday.

The dilemma remains: how does Labour prove credibility without being explicit about either alternative cuts or tax rises? It almost certainly can't be done.

At the end of last week, Ed Miliband said Labour shouldn't be locked into the 2:1 ratio for cuts and tax rises, as stated in Labour's manifesto. He said the new leader should outline cuts by the time of October's Spending Review and suggested that tax rises play a bigger role. Andy Burnham has since joined the call for more tax rises and has been bold and consistent in arguing that raising the NHS budget while cutting the social care budget is a mistake.

These are more forward-looking attempts at gaining distinction and they do help move Labour on from what felt, at the time, like a credible deficit reduction plan on page 6 of Labour's manifesto. Page 6 was the core script for all Labour spokespeople during the election, and in interview after interview, Ed Balls and others made it sound credible. Having lost an election so dominated by the Tory campaign against a National Insurance rise, Labour now needs a new deficit reduction plan that is not politically tarnished.

David Miliband has suggested doubling the banking levy and introducing a "mansion tax". Ed Balls would start the 50p income-tax rise at £100,000 and Ed Miliband would make it permanent. Yet all the candidates are struggling for credibility, because these tax rises don't add up to the spending cuts they are seeking to prevent and the VAT hike they voted against last night. Demos has costed an alternative, but it is not the only option.

McFadden is right that the Tories and Lib Dems want Labour to "retreat to its comfort zone" so that they can argue Labour is responsible for the deficit and that "they alone are capable of facing up to Britain's problems".

Labour's next leader needs to win two arguments at the same time. The first is that the deficit was not mismanagement, but a decision taken to prevent recession turning to depression. The second is that Labour's new leader can now be trusted to reduce it. The public will not accept one without the other.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

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Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit