One of the defining Tory attack lines against Labour at the general election will be that the opposition can’t be trusted with the economy after “crashing the car” last time round (an analogy borrowed from Barack Obama). It is a notion that the party has always rejected. In 2007, both the deficit (2.4 per cent of GDP) and the national debt (36.5 per cent) were lower than in 1997 (3.4 per cent of GDP, national debt of 42.5 per cent. It was the global crash that caused the deficit (which swelled to 11 per cent after a collapse in tax receipts), not the deficit that caused the crash.
But with polls showing that many voters still blame Labour for the financial crisis, it is a battle that some in the party have given up fighting. In his speech at last night’s New Statesman party, however, Chuka Umunna urged Labour to reject the “nonsense” claim that it “crashed the car” during its time in government. He said:
We know where the Tories are going to try and start this argument in this general election coming up. They want to run this story that our party crashed the car and drove it into the ditch during our period in office; what a load of nonsense, what a load of nonsense. We left this country in an immeasurably better situation in 2010 compared to where we found it in 1997, an immeasurably better situation, and ultimately only you, every single person in this room, only you can tell the story of the difference that our government made in your constituency, in your community, down your street.
And I just look at the centre of the universe that is Streatham … We just look, everyone in my constituency, at the things that our government delivered. We increased the number of people going into higher education by 81 per cent during our time in office, 81 per cent; nine Sure Start children’s centres that weren’t there; Building Schools for the Future projects ensuring that our young people have a learning environment that enables time to achieve their aspirations and dreams.
And that’s before you consider everybody who was able to go and get a job during our time in office, people who benefited from the National Minimum Wage during our time in office, so don’t you let anybody tell you that this party crashed the car when we were in office, because I tell you in Streatham, we left my community in a much, much better state than John Major, Margaret Thatcher, and the rest of them left it when we took office.
A frequent complaint of some in the party has been that, having broken so unambiguously with New Labour, Ed Miliband hasn’t done enough to defend his party’s record in government. Umunna’s comments make it clear that he believes Labour must highlight its past achievements if it is to enjoy future ones.
He went on to deliver a paean of praise to Miliband, who he backed for the leadership in 2010.
“You’re all going to hear his speech on Tuesday. Ed Miliband, genuinely, whoever you speak to, there are Conservative people in this room, is acknowledged to be a man of deep beliefs, a man of conviction, somebody who is honest and sincere. He isn’t in politics because he wants to do the whole PR thing, and wants to be a political celebrity, he is in politics because he fundamentally wants to transform the lives of all of the people that live in my and your communities, that is generally acknowledeged.
“But I tell you something. When most people think about politicians they do not attribute those qualities to me, many of the other MPs in this room, but, god, they attribute those qualities to our leader. So go forward to this general election in the next seven or eight months, with your head held high, proud of who you are, proud of what we believe, proud of our record, and let’s go out and win so we can do what we’ve always historically done as a party: create opportunity, prosperity, and enable people to meet their aspirations and dreams. That’s what we’re about.”