When it comes to being interrogated on live television by members of the public, as they were on the BBC’s Question Time last night, most politicians, even the most testosterone-fuelled, tend to follow the advice of Estravan, the androgynous lead in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, recently dramatized on Radio 4. “To learn which questions are unanswerable,” he/she observes, “and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
But it doesn’t always work – not in Yorkshire anyway. Although most of the headlines this morning were dominated by Ed Miliband ruling out ‘a deal’ with the SNP – albeit in a way that will still mean it can support a minority Labour government taking over from David Cameron if the arithmetic works out – his most awkward moment (apart from tripping off the stage) came as he was asked point blank whether he accepted, when Labour was last in power, that it overspent. “No, I don’t, and I know you may not agree with that,” he replied. Sadly for him, judging from the audience’s reaction at least, he was dead right.
But this was nothing new. Ed has had five years to come up with an answer to that question and neither he, nor anyone else in his party, has managed it. Right from the start he and Ed Balls have been prepared to admit that not everything New Labour did on the economy was perfect. But their apologies – if that’s what they were – have always been qualified, limited to Labour’s failure to properly regulate the City, to reduce the country’s reliance on the financial sector, and to be clearer, following the banking crisis, about the need to reduce the deficit and to do so by making spending cuts. Moreover, those mea culpas have always been immediately mitigated by the insistence that it was that crisis, rather than any excessive debt-fuelled spending, which blew a hole in the nation’s balance sheet.
Factually, that interpretation has a lot to be said for it – one important reason why neither of the two Eds, both of whom set great store in such things, can forget it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what the public believed any more – not after being told again and again by George Osborne, while Labour was distracted by its leadership contest, that it had ‘maxed out the nation’s credit card’ and ‘failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining’. Moreover, the likelihood that people could then be persuaded to change their minds again was vanishingly small.
It might, perhaps, have been different had Ed and Ed been more determined, once the dust of a contest in which every candidate (even David Miliband) distanced themselves from New Labour, to defend its record in government. But they weren’t. Quite understandably, they wanted to talk more about the present and the future than the past. But, if they were going to pursue that course, then perhaps they should have gone the whole hog.
The whole hog, however, would have involved them taking the advice of Tony Blair’s most candid friend and ardent admirer, Philip Gould. Writing in The Unfinished Revolution – New Labour’s bible-cum-playbook – Gould declared that, if you’ve have lost the argument with the public, then, even if you still suspect you might be right, you nevertheless concede and move on. Only then can you truly leave history behind and talk about what you want to do – and do differently – in the here and now.
Being more open about Blair and Brown’s mistakes, and in particular their willingness to borrow even in the good times, might have allowed Labour’s leader to recall their achievements more easily. Certainly his difficulty, and by extension the party’s difficulty, in doing just that has been amazing – and a source of some frustration among its MPs – considering how real those achievements arguably were. It might also have provided a more solid foundation of credibility from which to present what Labour is offering voters at this election.
On the other hand, it’s never easy to confess to a crime that you don’t think you’ve committed. And perhaps, in the end, it’s not really that sensible either. Any apology for racking up the deficit would undoubtedly have been used by the Tories as a stick with which to beat its main opponent not just at this election but for years, if not decades. As the political commentator, Steve Richards, who might easily have become Ed’s media chief, put it a few years ago “Sorry we screwed up the economy – Vote Labour” is hardly a winning slogan.
Tim Bale teaches politics at Queen Mary University of London. His latest book is Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband.