Friday, 21 January 2011

Time, experience and normality: Labour’s real loss

There are – thankfully – some positives we can glean from all of this. There is the fact that Balls can now bring his undoubted talent and expertise to the economic brief. There is also the fact that Johnson and Miliband were clearly not seeing eye-to-eye and there is now the opportunity for a new start, and possibly even a clearer definition of economic policy, as it seems difficult to imagine Balls waiting for the completion of the policy review process to define his approach. They have worked together before at the Treasury and presumably appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses. All these things are good.

The negatives, of course, are substantial: the more obvious ones picked over by the press this morning. Firstly Johnson’s appointment was absolutely not the mistake that Steve Richards argues it was. Ed’s choice was, in fact, extremely shrewd: he put a heavyweight in a heavyweight position and, more importantly, appointed someone who was not Ed Balls. Balls is someone whose talents are to be greatly admired but the harsh truth is, his association with Brown’s Treasury could destroy us on the economic brief, and that is nine-tenths of the political battle for 2011.

Then there is the concern that the two may not agree on economic policy, and may clash the same as or, taking into account the personalities and personal rivalry, worse than with Johnson. And that is the final issue, of course, much discussed in today’s press, the rivalry between the two men, the leader and his closest rival still standing, in a contest which Ed won by a whisker.

But, digging deeper, there are two more strategic weaknesses, less noticed: the first is the time lost, yet again, on our economic positioning. Despite the unforeseen and perfectly excusable nature of the departure, it is not what you want after three months as leader. Of post-war Shadow Chancellors, Johnson has now the dubious record of serving the least time in post (discounting Ken Clarke’s brief caretaker role in 1997). It doesn’t take a genius to conclude, that although sometimes junior Shadow roles may be changed without disruption, you do not do this kind of reshuffle unless you really have to. And we can see why: the real impact of this is now that our positioning on economic policy, put back already five months because of the late leadership election, no Chancellor Conference speech to concentrate the mind and focus the policy, then danced around because of differences between Miliband and Johnson. And now – the reality is, whatever they say – it will only start its real definition today, eight months after the election. By the time Balls has got his feet under the table and agreed a position with his boss, we will be nearly a year down the road from the election, and way behind the Tories on nailing their economic untruths, that is, if it is even possible at this stage. And politically, right now, economics is everything.

And finally there is the loss of Alan’s man-in-the-street, grey-haired life experience at the heart of government. This should not be understated. Originally we had a leadership election which was effectively between four Special Advisers, who had barely done a job outside politics. We now have, at the heart of our team, Miliband, Balls, Cooper and Alexander. All are young for their posts, in their early forties. All are Brownites. All are former researchers or Special Advisers who have worked all their lives in politics. Two are married. It is not necessarily the most streetwise, outward-looking, “normal” team you can find. The danger for us is insularity. The danger is wonkishness. The danger, as Brown ultimately found to his cost, is not connecting.

We now have even more limited time than before to make our economic choices and push out the message. It is time to get out there, have the wisdom to understand what the country wants and give it to them.

This post also at LabourList

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