Ed Milibands speech adds more mud to muddied waters…
Ed Miliband will today, in the words of The Guardian, tell Labour to ‘face-up to the reality of the deficit’. Obviously, this is an attempt to deal with Labour’s own pressing deficit – one of credibility – on the economy. Apparently, the Shadow Cabinet is ruminating over a failure to ‘resonate with the public mood’. The polls confirm that this failure is self-evident but Miliband starts from a fundamental misunderstanding of why this is – it is not because Labour does not sound ‘tough enough’ but, plainly and simply, it is because Labour’s economic narrative is as clear as mud.
This is partially because Miliband and indeed Ed Balls are trying to straddle two different points in time. Looking through his speech he clearly talks of the challenges a prospective Labour government will face in 2015 but also he talks about the here and now:
In the short term, where the government is stripping demand out of the economy, we would go less far and less fast. We call for these things not because we aren’t interested in dealing with the deficit. We call for them because we are. The sooner growth and jobs return, the easier it is to deal with the deficit we face
He then says:
Whoever is the next prime minister will not have money to spend. We will have to make difficult choices that all of us wish we did not have to make
“We’ll still tax and we’ll still spend, and in straitened times the politics of tax and spend – making sure tax is properly progressive, making sure spending is well targeted and efficient – will become more not less important.
So, in the space of a speech we have gone from ‘no money’ to targeted spending. Most voters will, not unreasonably, conclude from this that Miliband simply hasn’t got a clue what he is on about. It is pointless talking about the choices we will or will not face in 2015 now. 2015 is three years away and Mr Miliband has not a single clue what his choices will actually be. He can hypothesise all he likes about the possible economic conditions in 2015 but he can’t know; being frank, he can’t even guarantee that is when the next election will be. Currently, we have a clearly implied programme of investment in jobs and growth – which will presumably require borrowing at some point. This is all well and good but people cannot see how the whole is more than the sum of its scattered and confused parts.
It’s a mess and to think people wont see that it is astoundingly arrogant. This is what Alan Johnson was doubtless referring too when he talked about ‘Professor Miliband’ – the Professor in him wants to construct abstract models of future possibilities and necessary courses of action with which to enchant the voters but rather than enchant them it befuddles them.
People don’t want to hear about what you will do in 2015 until close to the end of 2014/early 2015 – they want to hear about what you want to do now, what you would do to make their lives better. This should be the sole focus of Labour’s message. Granted it is hard to do this as an opposition as your statements are always somewhat hypothetical and conditional (since you’re not in a position to do much about your proposals) – however, that is not really a valid excuse for Ed adding more mud to the water.
The reality of the deficit is that, as Ed rightly says, that it cannot be dealt with through austerity – it’s a bit like saying the solution to starvation is for people to go on a diet. What is needed is a massive programme of investment and restructuring the like of which Britain has not seen for some time. This will require borrowing and spending along with the measures Ed outlines to change corporate governance and democratise wealth distribution.
State spending was never going to solve structural inequality hard-wired into the way capitalism is is built. As Ed intimates, it is an illusion you can successfully conjure in a boom-time but it’s as naked as the next emperor in a time of contraction. However, part of the inevitable side-effects of economic contraction is that the primary contradiction of capitalism between socially produced and privately owned wealth is at its starkest and most obvious to people. This opens a window for radical change to be effected with popular support and participation but this aspect of Ed’s panacea is lost in the utter confusion that shoots through his speech and our leaderships approach on the economy.
Action is needed not just to create jobs but to raise wages (an essential precondition of tackling the mountain of personal debt), tackle out-of-control prices and to create sustainable growth. Radical measures to create jobs, like the shortening of the working week, should be on the cards as well as a shift to the co-operative and mutual model of ownership. Heavy state investment in re-skilling and re-tooling is a must as is the reversal on the frankly barking lashing of the public sector – a sector that is far more sustainable and permanent than the erratic private sector.
Within the above there is a clear narrative about where we are, where we have been and finally where we need to go. However, you can also see that it is a now-focused agenda with only hints of what will come to be if we take this course. Ed Miliband, however, has not found that clear narrative and instead continues to leave us bamboozled with needless abstraction. This is the real cause of Labour’s credibility deficit on the economy – not sounding not ‘tough enough’ and until that issue is addressed our deficit like the wider economic one will continue to grow.