Labour must not be defined by opposition to the cuts

Miliband is right to ignore the 'stand and fight brigade' and shift his economic stance.

The clamour for a change in Labour's economic stance that began with In The Black Labour is now growing daily. Ed Miliband's speech today signalled that the change is underway. Many in and around the party will be cautiously relieved. Many others, however, will be deeply disappointed.

Commentators such as Mehdi Hasan and Polly Toynbee have demanded in recent days that Ed ignores the demands for a more clearly hawkish line. Instead, they urge, he should stand and fight for what he and they know is right and morally sound. Good economics makes good politics and, sooner or later, the electorate will realise that Labour was correct all along. They undoubtedly represent a very strong seam of belief within the party and wider movement.

But there are big problems with this 'stand and fight because we're right' position.

In the first place, it assumes parties win elections because they have a correct analysis and the soundest values. This would imply that the Conservative Party had the best policies for the eighteen years prior to 1997. A view to which Mehdi and Polly, I assume, do not subscribe.

It also overlooks the fact that every party and their supporters believes they are correct. We may caricature Tories or Lib Dems as ignorant or self-serving rather than sincere in their views but they think exactly the same about Labour. This reveals a fundamental truth about politics which is that the great majority of people just think they are right. Rational, evidence-based debate has only a limited impact, in part because it is very rarely conclusive. Assuming that the inherent rationalism and morality of our particular version of 'rightness' will win out is to flirt with a profound naiveté.

Indeed Labour's economic case is not nearly as self-evidently right as the 'stand and fight' brigade think it is. Yes, there is a good case to be made for a slower pace of deficit reduction or even a small stimulus as enshrined in Labour's five point plan. Wise men such as Martin Wolf, who hold no brief for Labour, have made the case many times. But arguing that a slower path to deficit reduction would be a wise policy is not the same as saying that our economic prayers would be answered by such a move. Inflation has been too high, productivity too low, investment too stagnant, global economic and political volatility too great for a small shift in fiscal policy to really blow away the storm clouds. In truth, Mehdi and Polly want to stand and fight, tooth and nail for something that would do some measure of good but probably not a great deal more than that.

What actually despatches governments is events not the right arguments. Most voters live their lives and ignore the detailed debates that occupy the political classes. It is usually only when something so big and bad happens that it cannot be ignored that voters think seriously about replacing the current lot with that other lot. That was the case with the Winter of Discontent before the 1979 election, the ERM crisis before the 1997 election and the banking crash before the 2010 election. A party in opposition has to rebuild its lost credibility in preparation for that moment. This is vital because, as the 1990 recession showed, a big event will not necessarily play for an opposition if they are not yet trusted to take over the reins of government. In short, a new opposition party needs honestly and painfully to understand why it lost the election and forensically address those failings not exclusively kick lumps out of the new government. Anyone who thinks this can be done without making an almighty effort to regain Labour's reputation for fiscal prudence and economic competence is buried far too snugly in their comfort zone.

Many will read this post and think it is simply arguing for Labour to roll over, adopt a Tory-lite position and hang patiently around until the voters get fed up with Cameron. That would be a misinterpretation. Opposition parties must stand and fight but they must make sure they have a chance of winning. Don't leap into the ring and start throwing punches if the referee (the media) and the ringside judges (the voters) have already decided you're a loser.

So support a slower pace of deficit reduction but don't make it the defining feature of the fight with the coalition. Instead use what few opportunities we have to persuade the ref and the judges that we're not quite as useless as they think we are. That must mean emphasising our commitment to tough-minded, fiscal practice, first and foremost.

Once that is established Labour might begin to get listened to on its wider message and where it might start landing blows on the government. Then it is time to start drawing the distinctions. Emphasise Labour's bolder policy for jobs and growth by using the power of the state to actively restore the competitiveness of British business rather than Osborne's reheated and chaotic Lawsonism. And, yes, talk about a vision for a fairer, more responsible capitalism but make it clear this is a vision for fairness within the context of austerity - a new type of social democracy for very different and difficult times.

Fortunately, this seems to be precisely the thinking behind Ed's speech this morning. There is much, much more to be done but, despite what the 'stand and fight' brigade might now say, the genuine fight-back may just have begun.

Adam Lent is co-author of In the Black Labour and formerly Head of Economics at the TUC. He can be followed on Twitter: @adamjlent.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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