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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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.