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Owen Jones: Ed Balls' surrender is a political disaster

The shadow chancellor's capitulation on cuts and public sector pay offers vindication for the Tories, says Owen Jones.

I never expected to become a defender of New Labour's record, let alone against its own most zealous supporters. At this point, I should clarify that I haven't been kidnapped by Peter Mandelson and transformed into a Blairite drone. What I mean is that among all the disappointments and betrayals of the New Labour era, there were genuine social advances. They are now being shredded at lightning speed by a radical Tory government - but with the increasing complicity of the Labour leadership.

Just after news broke on Friday that Ed Balls had regretfully announced the next Labour Government is 'going to have to keep all these cuts' and declared his support for the Government's public sector pay freeze, I spent my evening debating Tory ex-Minister Edwina Currie on Stephen Nolan's 5 Live show.

Currie was in full-on triumphalist mode, gloating that Labour had accepted that the Tories were right all along. I couldn't blame her. Before coming on air, I listened to a spokesperson for the hard-right Taxpayers Alliance similarly praising Balls to the hilt. At the same time, I scrolled through Twitter, wincing as prominent Tories and Liberal Democrats proclaimed victory. 'You lose,' tweeted right-wing blogger Harry Cole to Balls' political advisor Alex Belardinelli.

Tory MP Robert Halfon couldn't contain his glee, either: he promptly cobbled together a blog post entitled 'Ed Balls comes out... as a Conservative', bragging that the Shadow Chancellor had appeared 'to sign up to Coalition economic policy'. 'After months of opposition, the Labour Party appear to have conceded defeat,' he boasted, adding that he thought 'Coalition Ministers will be able to sleep safer in their beds in future'.

The stifling of Labour's internal democracy is taken so much for granted that no-one has even bothered to pass comment on the lack of consultation before Ed Balls' announcement. One leading MP was stunned, telling me that the Parliamentary Labour Party was given no prior warning and would be 'shellshocked' when they returned to Westminster. As for trade unions or party members -- well, you are well within your rights to chuckle that I've even bothered to mention them.

Ed Balls' surrender is a political disaster. It offers vindication for the Tories' economic strategy, even as it is proven to fail. Growth has been sucked out of the economy. Consumer confidence has plummeted. Unemployment is soaring, with no sign of the promised 'private sector-led recovery'. Even on its own terms, the Government's austerity measures have failed disastrously: George Osborne will borrow more than Alistair Darling's plan, so derided by the Tories at the last general election. As for the impact the cuts are beginning to have on our communities and those groups being pummelled hardest (women, young people, and the disabled, for instance) - well, that's simply incalculable.

But rather than trying to push a coherent argument against this disastrous austerity programme, it is now being treated as a fait accompli. Sure, the cuts are now necessary because of George Osborne's mistakes, but they are nonetheless here to stay. Labour can no longer talk about how these cuts are inherently destructive, because otherwise it would have to commit to reverse them. Neither can it aim fire at their ideological nature, as when Cameron announced they were permanent before the election: that is, after all, now Labour's starting point too.

And it will surely fuel the sense that the Conservatives are making the necessary tough economic decisions, and Labour are simply playing catch-up. This is a large part of the catastrophe that has befallen Labour since the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s began. The Tories were allowed to transform a crisis of the market into one of public spending because Labour failed to offer a coherent alternative narrative. The role of collapsing tax revenues and rising welfare spending as unemployment rose barely got a mention; the Tories managed to get away with the fact they backed Labour's spending plans pound for pound until the end of 2008.

When I complained about this suicidal strategy - or, rather, suicidal absence of one - to a shadow minister at Labour Party Conference in September, they responded quick as a flash that we did indeed have a deficit because Labour overspent. I confess that - at this point - I felt that if senior Labour figures were happy to accept dishonest blame handed out by the Tories, then it was hopeless.

This latest surrender to the Tory cuts agenda comes after a protracted struggle at the top of the leadership. One faction argued that, once you started specifying cuts, there would be a loss of focus on their deflationary impact, and that the Tories would come back for more and more detail on Labour's spending plans. We now know this argument has been decisively defeated.

Arch-Blairite Jim Murphy - who harbours ambitions to stand for leadership should Ed Miliband fail - began rolling out the new strategy earlier in the month by calling for Labour to avoid 'shallow and temporary' populism over spending cuts, setting out his own proposed cuts as an example to his colleagues. The equally devout Blairite shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has partly endorsed Michael Gove's attacks on the scrapped Building Schools for Future programme, and has outlined £2bn of his own cuts. And Liam Byrne has committed Labour to a renewed attack on the welfare state, currently being hacked to pieces by the Government. I bet the word 'vindicated' will be used liberally around the corridors of Conservative Campaign Headquarters next week.

And so former arch-critics of Blair and Brown such as myself are forced to defend large chunks of their record from their acolytes. New Labour's major departure from Thatcherite orthodoxy was investment in public services. It is now being torched with the approval of Blairites and Brownites. Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher headed the two transformative governments of post-war Britain, each establishing a new political consensus by forcing their oppositions to accept the key tenets of their programmes. Cameron looks set to follow in their footsteps, with New Labour an interregnum that temporarily tinkered with the Thatcher consensus, much like the Tory governments of the 1950s and the Attlee consensus.

As the usually thoughtful Tory Peter Oborne put it:

A sea change is at work. In practically every area of British public life - state spending, the economy, education, welfare, the European Union (where Ed Miliband refused to condemn Cameron's pre-Christmas veto), mass immigration, law and order - Conservatives are winning the argument and taking policy in their direction.

It is not inevitable, of course. It is being allowed to happen because there is a lack of countervailing pressure from below. If a broad coalition of Labour activists and trade unions united around a coherent alternative and put concerted pressure on the leadership, this surrender can be stopped in its tracks. With the Shadow Cabinet set to continue its suicidal course, time is running out - but it is the only hope to stop Cameron transforming Britain forever.

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide