The demand of John Hutton and Alan Milburn’s piece in today’s Financial Times is a familiar one: defend our record. Ed Miliband has frequently been charged by members of the last Labour government with failing to devote sufficient time to reminding voters of the achievements of that administration. The Tories, it is said, have been given free rein to trash the party’s brand.
Hutton and Milburn’s primary complaint is the failure to rebut the Conservative claim that it was excessive public spending that caused the economic crisis. As they write: “The last Labour government could be considered one of the most prudent in modern times. After a decade in power it had cut the deficit and cut the national debt. Mr Osborne cannot have been unduly concerned about Labour spending plans when, in 2007, he committed the Tories to sticking to them. Among the Group of Eight rich countries, only Canada had less public debt.”
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 crash that caused the deficit (which swelled to 11 per cent after a collapse in tax receipts), not the deficit that caused the crash.
The claim that Miliband and Ed Balls have failed to point all of this out is unmerited. Indeed, Balls in particular, has often been accused of mounting too aggressive a defence of Labour’s fiscal record. In January 2014, he told The Andrew Marr Show: “Do I think the level of public spending going into the crisis was a problem for Britain? No, I don’t, nor our deficit, nor our national debt – what happened was a global financial crisis which pushed up the deficit.” Similarly, in 2011, Miliband commented: “The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats I think are pedalling a very dangerous myth because they want to tell people that it was somehow all because of a decade of overspending under Labour. It wasn’t. It was because of a financial crash – a financial crash that happened all round the world.”
Both men have rightly resisted the demand from the right, and occasionally from the left, to “apologise” for Labour’s profligacy. But if they have refused to be as vocal as Hutton and Milburn would like, their caution has been wise. The perception that the last Labour government “overspent” is now so ingrained that there is little to be gained from mounting a desperate rearguard action. Miliband and Balls have instead focused on reassuring voters that they would be wise spenders in office, pledging to eliminate the current deficit and reduce the national debt as a share of GDP.
The wider complaint from Milburn and Hutton is that “They have worked harder to distance themselves from New Labour than to defend its record”. Indeed, and they have been right to do so. Defeated parties do not regain power by fighting old battles but by convincing voters that they have changed. They win arguments about the future, not about the past. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and, to a lesser extent, David Cameron all won by defining themselves against both the government of the day and their parties’ former incarnations. Cameron’s failure to achieve a majority reflected the incompleteness of his modernising project.
Voters who deserted Labour betweeen 1997 and 2010 will not be assuaged by reminders of its achievements: the minimum wage, the shortest NHS waiting times, Sure Start and a million fewer pensioners in poverty (any more than they were at the last general election). They will be won back through an honest reckoning with its mistakes: the indifference to inequality, the Iraq war, the lack of financial regulation and the disregard for civil liberties. Miliband was quicker than most to recognise this (the key to his leadership victory in 2010). His failure, if anything, has been an inability to more clearly detach Labour from its past. Those who have abandoned the party for Ukip, the SNP and the Greens have not done so because they believe Miliband has too little in common with his predecessors.
There are numerous criticisms that one can level at the Labour leader’s performance, and that of his party, since 2010. But it does not follow that an unremitting defence of its past record would have served the opposition any better. Indeed, it would likely have served it far worse.