Labour gathers for its autumn conference this weekend. Given that the People’s Party has a persistent lead in the polls, and that the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition is hardly what you’d call competent, one is tempted to suggest Ed Miliband and his troops needn’t bother. Why risk a hostage to fortune in front of the TV cameras?
Not that Labour hasn’t been active. I’ve enjoyed the little game of tweets being played between the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, and Vince Cable, our quick-footed Lib Dem minister for everything in the economy he can get his hands on. Bruiser Ed is dropping big hints about the possibility of a future Labour and Liberal Democrat partnership, largely to turn up the heat on Nick Clegg.
Vince, for his part, is playing hard to get, but in a flirtatious way that shows he does not completely rule out the possibility of a (political) dalliance once husband Nick has been divorced. After all, somebody has to replace Mr Clegg, the walking dead of British politics. It’s only a question of when.
Labour should also do well out of the three Westminster by-elections due in November. The Lib Dems will be crushed, maybe precipitating their inevitable leadership crisis. Then if Chancellor George Osborne has to make a U-turn towards economic growth in his March Budget, Labour can crow “I told you so”. And if Osborne is daft enough to stick his head in the sand, Labour’s poll lead will reach stratospheric proportions. People might even start to like Ed Balls.
However, I have a note of warning for Edward Miliband. It involves reference to the word hubris. But before getting to that, let me be the first to say we have all underestimated our Ed. He has managed, in barely two years, to wash away memories of Labour’s association with both the loopy warrior saint, Tony Blair, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose disastrously directionless administration was only saved from shipwreck by his Chancellor, Alistair Darling.
How has Ed managed this, aside from the natural desire of all sane people to forget they were ever taken in by Blair and Brown? It has much to do with the fact that Miliband jr really is the policy nerd he comes across as. Son of the late, great Marxist intellectual, Ralph Miliband, our Ed thinks ideas are important. Sure, he is tainted with New Labour’s obsession with facile presentation. But Ed is not an arch manipulator, in Blair or Brown mould. His sincerity is genuine. It comes across. Plus he is not flashy. A jaded electorate is fed up with flash.
Here is Ed’s problem. The cosy nerdiness that has helped separate Ed’s Labour from Tony’s will play against him in a general election. For Ed Miliband does not come across as a national leader in a television age.
I don’t mean his voice or looks, though they are better suited to the university seminar room. I mean he lacks the raw energy, charisma, and communications skills of someone the electorate can rally to in a crisis. His current strength is his future weakness: Miliband is too much of a geek. In a political showdown with David Cameron, oozing Eton charm, the polls will close rapidly.
Labour has deeper problems than Ed Miliband: it has no economic strategy except to parrot the need for growth. I know that opposition parties prefer to be vague. But I am increasingly worried that if we don’t have a genuine public debate about solutions to the crisis, we are going to be in economic horse manure for a generation.
Labour seems to be arguing a UK government should borrow and spend more, at least in the short-run, to promote growth. Ed Balls has suggested a temporary cut in VAT, which is peanuts. The current double-dip recession has so slashed tax receipts to the Treasury that the Coalition is running a whopping budget deficit equivalent to 8 per cent of GDP – that’s more than Spain, and more than Alistair Darling was planning.
To get the economy growing anywhere near normal would mean increasing the deficit by a fifth, to around 10 per cent of GDP. In the course of a five-year parliament, that would add more than 50 per cent to the total national debt. Think about putting the equivalent of 50 per cent of your annual income on your credit card, and you’ll see this is the road to bankruptcy. Will the markets play ball with this strategy? I know the credit ratings agencies won’t.
Worse, even if you succeed in boosting nominal growth by increasing government spending, you have not necessarily boosted output and therefore not solved the crisis. Britain’s economic problem is not the lack of spending but the chronic lack of production. Under Gordon Brown, industry was ignored in favour of a financial bubble. What appeared as growth was actually the result of consumers spending money acquired using equity release. This was only possible because house prices were being boosted artificially through cheap mortgages funded by excess bank lending. We can’t repeat that catalogue of mistakes.
Yet Labour, once the traditional party of the industrial producer, has no policies for… er, restoring production. Surprisingly, even the trades unions are silent on the issue. The real victory of Blairism is that it has turned Labour into the party of vapid consumerism. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have not changed that.
Why? Because it involves genuinely hard choices: boosting productivity, reducing unit labour costs, switching public spending from entitlements to infrastructure, and reducing consumption to increase savings for investment. Ed just wants to get re-elected, not rebuild a nation.
This leaves visionless Labour vulnerable to a Tory counter-attack. Suppose the Conservatives fight the next election in 2015 on Europe, offering a binding “in-out” referendum? That would see off Ukip and split Labour, leaving Ed the Nerd scrambling for a response.
Labour needs to hang a big sign over its autumn conference, with the slogan: ‘In politics, it’s not over till it’s over’.