It would be easy to dismiss Ed Miliband’s admission that Labour was too slow to talk “openly and clearly” about the need for cuts as another piece of detail-free rhetoric. But, with Labour’s internal politics in mind, it’s a highly significant intervention.
Miliband’s announcement puts more clear blue water between himself and Ed Balls, who, as Paul Waugh recently noted, still longs for the shadow chancellorship. It was Balls who used the Labour leadership election to make the argument that, had the party persisted with the Brownite mantra of “investment versus cuts”, it could have won a fourth term. Faced with a choice between Labour cuts and Tory cuts, Balls argues, it was no surprise that voters opted for the real thing.
But others point to polling evidence that Labour’s stance on cuts cost it votes as, in the public’s view, state spending breached acceptable limits. Miliband isn’t planning to look again at his proposed 60:40 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises, but he is suggesting that Labour’s rhetoric on cuts left it open to the charge of “deficit denial”.
What makes Miliband’s intervention particularly significant is the increasing uncertainty around Alan Johnson’s position. After yesterday’s PMQs, during which David Cameron repeatedly joked that the shadow chancellor “can’t count”, it is clear that the Tories view Johnson as the weak link in Labour’s armoury. And, after Sky News tripped him up on the employers’ rate of National Insurance, Johnson can expect every broadcaster to pull a similar trick.
In the meantime, there is growing pressure from the left for Miliband to replace Johnson with either the popular Yvette Cooper (who topped Labour’s shadow cabinet poll) or Ed Balls at some point in the near future. Yet the Labour leader’s latest strategic move suggests Balls may have to wait a while longer for that promotion.