The Labour leader indulges contradictory positions in his entourage. He needs to choose a course and stick with it.
A new year has deepened old splits. This week Ed Miliband’s guru Lord Glasman politely excoriated the party for seemingly having “no strategy”. If anyone thought it was a direct attack on Ed Miliband, they missed the point. It was a thinly veiled assault on Ed Balls and the shadow chancellor’s associated vision for the state.
Glasman is not alone. Labour MP Jim Murphy reached out to join him and In the Black Labour argued that the lack of coherence on the deficit was undermining the party’s credibility. Liam Byrne MP called for benefits to be overhauled. Although Ed Miliband has agreed to all these positions in theory, he has not led them in practice.
Whilst the parliamentary party is closer to Ed Balls, the country is closer to Maurice Glasman, at least in terms of spending. Ed Miliband is somewhere in the middle, and the result is an awkward triangulation that doesn’t get through to the public.
In his latest interview for the Guardian, the Labour leader papered over the split. He came out relatively strongly in favour of fiscal conservatism, saying that finding a way to improve the country with less money was “the challenge” facing Labour. But he also defended Ed Balls, saying that he was the man who led spending cuts in 1997.
This feels disingenuous. Ed Balls clearly believes a form of Keynesian economics is a credible way to get us out of the red, and if he does have plans to improve the country beyond a traditional tax and spend model, I haven’t heard them. I am still not clear what his plans are to boost the private sector or how to rebalance growth out of the South East and financial services, although this may be because Balls believes it would take even more investment in enterprise zones or tax breaks, meaning even great cuts elsewhere.
Blue Labour is calling for a radically different programme. Glasman has repeatedly urged us to learn the lessons of Germany, increasing vocational education, regional banks and workers’ representation. He wants a more reciprocal model of the state with a heavier emphasis on contribution, giving people control over assets rather than material flows. He wants a deep cultural change that allows the party to speak about small ‘c’ conservative values that deal with family, neighbourliness and place.
Glasman also clashes with Balls on the market. He wants to place limits on the flexibility of capital and labour and have a dialogue about responsible capitalism. Ed Balls seems at best uninterested with this approach. When the opposition asked Balls to define “predatory behaviour” heralded by his leader under the inspiration of Glasman, he had nothing to say, and as left blogger Sunny Hundal points out, Balls’ recent position on bankers was essentially the same as the Conservatives.
Both sides have their challenges. The problem for Ed Balls is that his strategy seems bankrupt. We don’t know where the money for tax and spend is going to come from. Even if we did, it doesn’t answer the fact that Labour’s huge welfare bill failed to empower many vulnerable people. And it’s not where the public are at. They hate waste and want fiscal discipline.
The problem for Glasman is that he lacks a strategy for power. Ed Miliband is – or was – his key relationship with power. He took a risk by speaking out, and the leader’s office is now irritated with him, and the parliamentary party is unlikely to be sympathetic. There are only so many times you can set fire to a bridge before it burns down completely.
So now Ed Miliband has to make a choice. I want him to succeed, but too often his interviews appear to be carving out a difficult intellectual position for journalists and politicians to accept as consistent. He needs to speak over the heads of Westminster elites and talk to the country about exactly what a Labour government would look like. His messages on the squeezed middle, responsibility and the promise of Britain are right on. He just needs the strength to follow through what these radical changes mean in practice. We need to see how Labour will turn a sense of national decline into something great.