Chuka Umunna and Ed Balls listen to the speeches at the Policy Network Conference held in the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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It’s Labour, not the Tories, that has a “long-term plan” for the economy – but who knows that?

The party needs to aggressively contest Cameron’s ownership of the politics of growth. 

An assertion that is repeated often enough becomes the truth. In the election campaign, the Conservatives’ “long-term economic plan” is proof of this. The head of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth, exposed the vacuity of this mantra when he observed: “Do you know what it is? No? Exactly. Neither do I.”

The voters, though, are less disdainful. One Tory strategist says that he knows of no slogan that polls better among focus groups. The confidence with which Conservative MPs deploy their message both reflects and reinforces their advantage on the economy. Their poll lead on that issue stands at 15 points; David Cameron and George Osborne lead Ed Miliband and Ed Balls by 22. Aides say that the Chancellor, a man who was booed at the Paralympics in 2012, is congratulated by the public on “sticking to the plan” during his hard-hat tours.

The truth is that he has done anything but. Having vowed nearly to eliminate the deficit, Osborne is now only able to boast of having halved it – the target he once derided as hopelessly profligate. But as Margaret Thatcher understood, the appearance of consistency is more important than the reality. When Labour MPs refer ironically to the Tories’ “long-term economic plan”, they risk merely reinforcing their opponents’ ownership of this issue.

Their incredulity is forgivable. There is nothing in the Tories’ programme to justify the claim that they possess an elixir for the British disease of short-termism. They have pledged to achieve an absolute Budget surplus by the end of the next parliament but, as Longworth noted, “That is not a plan for growth and enterprise.” Indeed, by precluding borrowing for investment, it is a plan for the reverse. The promise of an EU referendum is so long-termist that Cameron voted against the policy in 2011. “This is not the time to argue about walking away,” he warned then. “Not just for their sakes but for ours. Legislating now for a referendum, including on whether Britain should leave the EU, could cause great uncertainty and could actually damage our prospects of growth.” His subsequent pledge was made only to stave off regicide.

The Tories’ reputation for solidity is perhaps their greatest electoral asset. By impugning Labour’s economic credibility, they aim to cast it as a party whose good intentions lead inexorably to bad outcomes. Their rejoinder to Miliband’s pledge to outspend them on health and education is that high-quality public services ultimately depend on a “strong economy”. Labour’s problem, they suggest, is that it always runs out of other people’s money. Miliband’s complaint of depressed real wages is met with a similar retort: living standards will rise only if GDP rises. To this, the opposition protests: if growth has returned, why have earnings remained so feeble?

It is this accusation that explains Cameron’s belated appropriation of a slogan previously used by the TUC: “It’s time Britain had a pay rise”. Miliband, with satisfaction, regards this rhetorical shift as evidence that the Prime Minister is “playing on our pitch”. He is encouraged by Barack Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012, when the US president, like Labour, trailed on economic management and on deficit reduction but led on living standards. If Cameron wants a fight on the latter, Miliband believes there will be only one winner.

But the 2012 US election, one studied obsessively by strategists on both sides, also offers a cautionary tale for Labour. Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan’s question from 1980 – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” – but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and it doubted his Republican rival could do any better. The Tories’ belief is that British voters will eventually reach the same conclusion about Labour.

To counter this danger, the party must aggressively contest Cameron’s ownership of the politics of growth. As the Prime Minister encroaches on Labour’s territory, it should respond with raids on his. The danger is that the party’s preoccupation with living standards has allowed it to be too easily cast as a socialist troglodyte that knows only how to cap, freeze and tax.

The irony is that in areas such as appren­ticeships, infrastructure, banking and the EU, the opposition has the most pro-growth policies. A study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research published on 9 February found that owing to its looser fiscal stance, the economy would grow faster under Labour than the Conservatives: a fact entirely lost in the current debate.

The message that Labour could support business better than the Tories was delivered by Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna at the British Chambers of Commerce conference. In an echo of Michael Heseltine’s promise to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner” to promote British industry, Umunna declared, “We will work every day, strain every sinew, to make your lives that bit easier: easier to do business; easier to export; easier to create jobs; easier to succeed.”

The Labour leader has made no shortage of “pro-business” speeches but the perception that he is hostile to wealth creation has become ingrained. In his days as an adviser to Gordon Brown, he was known by Blairites as “the emissary from Planet F***”. One MP complains he has left Balls and Umunna playing an equivalent role for business.

There is still time for him to remedy this impression. In his next speech on the subject he should unhesitatingly echo Umunna’s assertion: “Any debate on building a fairer society is academic unless there are businesses creating wealth.” If he does so with enough conviction, he may just start to be believed. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue