Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Labour's New Generation and the economy (stupid)

Well, we're now starting to see more of how the Opposition is going to shape up over the next few years. The jury's still out - but there are some slightly worrying signs. On the positive side, Ed's smart enough to realise that he needs to make reassuring noises to the business community if he is not to veer into Labour-in-the-Eighties territory - hence the warm speech to the CBI.

On the other hand, his PMQs effort on Wednesday, centred around an attack on Housing Benefit, came off wrong. To be fair, the wind was rather taken out of his sails by Cameron's party trick of reading out from a leaked memo from his office, which he took in good part (not that he had much option) - watch it below (at 0m:55s).

But much more serious was the exchange on Housing Benefit itself. Ed was clearly raising the legitimate concern that indiscriminate cutting could hurt the most vulnerable in society. He's right. But it was the wrong subject at the wrong time, and it failed to answer the pressing question: what's wrong with capping the amount that people can claim, to stop people claiming for ridiculous rents? Since we don't have an answer to that question (or at least, not now that Jamie Purnell is gone from the front benches) which is palatable to the Party, Ed effectively lost the argument and Cameron was Mr. Reasonable. Worse, as someone on LabourList pointed out, the capping policy was actually in Labour's manifesto, author one E. Miliband.

John Rentoul's Independent article is indicative of where things could go wrong. I accept that Rentoul may indeed be a closet Tory, as various people alleged on LabourList, but that is a cop-out, if he has a good point to make. Now, unlike him, I don't believe that Ed is allowing wholesale drift, but he surely needs to hold a tighter rein.

We, the public, are still unsure what the Big Idea is. Ed is said to be "collegiate" in his leadership style. Well, I'm afraid Harold Wilson was also "collegiate" and his governments were a mess. Factions to appease, unions to get on board, compromises to be made. But political leaders need to lead from the front, not try and achieve consensus (name me a successful consensus-based government of note, if you disagree).

It's also fairly obvious where the real flaw in the Coalition's plans are. As Clinton could have told you, "it's the economy, stupid". Simply put, they are cutting too far, too fast and endangering the economic recovery. Not just Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, but also that, er, unreconstructed leftie Martin Wolf of the Financial Times say it's the wrong policy (his excellent article talks of the Coalition "going economic rock-climbing without a rope"). That's the real, intellectually coherent issue which strikes at the heart of the Coalition's key weakness - poor judgement. And we are talking about it; but it needs to be the only, and a fully coordinated, attack. Not just various ministers saying "the cuts are wrong because they hurt people". That's true, but it's not good enough for much of the electorate. Cuts always hurt someone, but that in itself is not always sufficent argument for avoiding them.

Right now, we need to stop playing to our own gallery. Leadership means caring much less about what the Labour movement thinks, and worrying much more about what the country thinks. The first 100 days of a leadership is the time to establish the ground rules - so time is short.


  1. STOP PRESS: This post just published in LabourList.

  2. LabourList version tweeted by John Rentoul of the Indie on Sunday http://twitter.com/JohnRentoul

  3. I have now been picked up by the Tory Press Office and retweeted as "Former Blair campaigner Rob Marchant" - with my words twisted to suit their ends, naturally. http://twitter.com/ToryPressHQ/statuses/29685436877

    I was talking about Wilson, not Ed. Thanks to LabourList's Mark Ferguson for defending me in the Twittersphere. Ho hum.


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