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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.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.