Thursday, 14 April 2011

That high risk economic policy again: ours

Recess. Time for us all to reflect on where we’re at before the elections are upon us. And what will people be wanting to hear on the doorstep this month? That the cuts are awful, and that we’re with them. Right?


The idea that we might be taking a risk with this line seems particularly wrong-headed, as the Tories are wrong and we are right on the pure economics of the cuts. Krugman, Stiglitz, and other luminaries agree (hmmm, which should we trust, two Nobel prize winners or George Osborne? Let’s think). The trouble is, we are taking a risk. As I have observed before, it is often not so much the economic policy itself, which is essentially right, but our positioning on that policy – the politics – which is risky.

Our approach is risky, perhaps as much as the Tories’, in its way, because it is predicated on the potential for economic disaster from cutting too far, too fast. And, of course, that disaster may not happen or worse, may happen, but not in a way which we can prove. It may be a little early to assume, as Liberal Conspiracy’s Sunny Hundal seems to, that we will be incontrovertibly proved right.

 By allowing the two sides of the cuts narrative to dominate our thinking – the negative effect on people on the one hand, and on growth on the other – we miss the future impact. We forget that, while the first is undeniable, it will pass, and that the second may turn out be difficult to prove. And, when faced with the fait accompli of the policy, what then?

Two golden rules of politics, or any struggle for that matter: choose your battles carefully and play for the long-term, not the short.

One problem with opposition is that you campaign heavily against something, which later comes to pass. And, after a short while, it is as if things had always been that way, as the Tories found to their cost. They campaigned against everything: gay rights, an independent bank of England and devolution. Things that nowadays no sensible Tory would dream of trying to reverse, but for which dire consequences were nonetheless predicted. They were then faced with the gritted-teeth reality of looking on, impotent, as these policies were comfortably put in place. They were the perceived losers of the argument. And the dire consequences, of course, never materialised.

It’s not for the faint-hearted, opposition.

Now fast-forward to 2015: barring an unexpected governmental implosion before then, or other act of God, what are the scenarios?

One: slump scenario. Osborne cuts off growth so badly that we are thrown into years of stagnation, like Japan in the 90s. By 2015, Balls is lauded as a genius for reading the runes correctly and Labour takes power. Verdict: unlikely.

Two: everything’s fine scenario. In about a year, Tory policy turns out to have been 100% right. Britain bounces back to economic “business as usual” with minimal damage. Verdict: unlikely.

Three: painful-but-in-the-end-everything’s-fine scenario. The Tories’ big economic gamble, which causes much unnecessary pain early on, pays off politically. Because who can ever prove whether we would have ended up with higher growth under chancellor Balls? Probably we would have, but it’s an irrelevant what-if by then. Everyone goes through a couple of years of hell, perhaps even a double-dip recession, for which Labour is duly blamed. But, at the end of it, the economy returns to normal before five years have elapsed. The Tories claim credit. You can just see their feel-your-pain campaign tagline: “We know it hurt. But it worked”.

Of the three, it is obvious which is the most likely: the last one. But, think about this: if we don’t end up in the slump scenario, as seems likely, we face the electorate not only with our economic model accepted as wrong, but with theirs accepted as right. Which it isn’t. Unpleasant, isn’t it?

So, for us to win the political debate from here, we would need an inordinate amount of luck. The alternative? Move on, or at the very least, do so once these elections are done. The cuts will keep happening and we will comment on them as they affect specific areas, but no more. Don’t let them dominate. Grasp the initiative and move it on to our territory. Health. Education. Law and order. Whatever territory, as long as it’s not the cuts in general, because that is a battle we cannot win.

Or, stick with the our current economic positioning, which is – however much we prefer to call it “betraying the British promise” or the “cost of living crisis” – centred around the debate on cuts, cuts, cuts.

The ground the Tories want. And, if we have really decided that’s got to be the focus, well, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: 

Do I feel lucky?

This post first published at Labour Uncut, and selected by Politics Home for its Five at Five must-read list.


  1. Did you see Cameron's "immigration speech"? Labour is seen in many inner city areas as the party of mass Polish/Romanian immigration. Riots in Wrexham (covered up) over a fridge. "They got one why ain't we got one?" Add the fact that whilst Mr Miliband is a nice man he is as unlikely to site in Number 10 as Cleggy.

  2. Have read most of it. A bit populist, but at the same time not half as dreadful as many of my well-intentioned comrades are making out.

    Think it may deserve a post all of its own.

  3. He is in trouble over numbers. Would not be the first time. This one will run and run. Independence for Catalunya?

  4. He is. But we may still lose this argument.

    Independence for Catalonia? Not any time soon, I think. The nationalists in power are not actually really interested in it.

  5. Nice analysis... gloomy scenarios ;-)

  6. Ah, welcome Conor (suggest, readers, you check out Conor's excellent website by clicking on his name).

    Yes. Depressing, isn't it? The Tories have a narrative which is wrong, but convincing. Labour has one which is right, but unconvincing.

    Heigh ho.


    I have just read, in Tony Blair's "A Journey", the following passages (I swear, I didn't read them before writing the article). They deserve quoting in full, not just because they back up what the piece almost exactly, but also because they are astonishingly prescient given that they were written before Ed Miliband was even elected as Leader.

    [the lesser option for our positioning is] "...mounting a general attack on macro policy - 'putting the recovery at risk' - and ending up betting the shop that the recovery fails to materialise."

    "Such an approach is the reverse of what is easy for Oppositions, who get dragged almost unconsciously, almost unwillingly, into wholesale opposition. It's where the short-term market in votes is. It is where the party feels most comfortable. It's what gets the biggest cheer. The trouble is, it also chains the Opposition to positions that in the longer term look irresponsible, short-sighted or just plain wrong."

    Sound familiar?


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