Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A bit of a Balls-up?

 You could be forgiven for thinking that the two Ed’s had offered to go and sack a bunch of public sector workers themselves after the furore this weekend. The image of Ed Balls marching into our hospitals and schools, arbitrarily laying people off, must have been on the minds of many members of the public by the way they reacted, not to mention the unions. And who is to blame? And what does it say about the way Labour is seen in a modern Britain, post-crash, mid-crisis?

‘Red Ed’, the man elected by the unions (allegedly for the unions) never had an easy run of it to start with. In the minds of many, simply not being his brother was an immediate turn-off, and with his fingers very much in the Brown government’s pie, and his alleged ‘far-left’ leanings, the ride was never going to be easy. Ed, of course, isn’t far left; but what exactly is he? Unfortunately, his start hasn’t seemed to have improved with him necessarily appointing Balls as Chancellor (a man so intrinsically linked with bank deregulation and the deficit) simply because there was none other after Alan Johnson resigned. A seeming dearth of talent who aren’t attached to Labour’s mistakes on the front bench, together with a lack of sense of direction, has certainly hurt the first few months of ‘Next Labour’. ‘We are a new generation’, we were told; well, deliver.

Balls et al have a number of problems, and the worst of them is the past. No Labour minister is willing to say they are proud of the past, despite the Blair-Brown government enacting some of the most popular and most progressive policies of any party in the world. Instead, they skate over things which the public blames them for – namely the deficit and the huge deregulation of the banking sector. What caused the crash was the reliance on credit, the spend-spend culture which was certainly not unique to the UK, but was rife here. We were all guilty – consumers, banks, government. But for a Labour government to be losing the argument now on regulation, being outregulated (if you will) by a Conservative administration is extraordinary. Labour must admit that they let the city rule far too much, and thought the good times would never end. It’s only once we accept the failings of the administration, that we can hope to celebrate some of its successes (take gay rights, women’s empowerment, the national minimum wage, the reduction in crime). In the good times, we didn’t prepare fully for the bad; and there was a deafening silence from the Conservatives as well. There was a consensus, and history has shown it to have been a faulty one – but to deny it is wrong.

But wrong too is suggesting that the financial crash is all the fault of the past administration – it’s not, of course. We got it wrong on regulation. We were desperate to keep taxes relatively low whilst improving public sector pay and services, and after the crash, the deficit was unsustainable. If we’re honest, we didn’t come clean about tuition fees, and we left the pension crisis for post May 2010. And if we’d won, what would have been the result?

That is partly what Ed has to answer. The current Labour leadership seems to be devoid of a narrative, a story of where the Labour Party should be going. And the political landscape is just waiting for one. We have the Tory narrative – we are responsible, we are dealing with Labour’s mess, and there is no alternative. And Labour’s? Well, at the moment all we seem to have is scared rabbits in the headlights – look at the recent drive at credibility which so affected the party this weekend. Labour has to regain credibility, sure, but simply being credible, with no actual policy direction, no new ideas, and no passion for an alternative is not going to win votes, and certainly not inspire traditional Labour heartlands.

It is time for Labour to lay out their vision of the future. The argument that it’s too early to come out with a manifesto is absolutely accurate; Labour members and disaffected members of the public are not looking for a manifesto, but a story. We need to tell people what the financial sector would look like under Labour. We need to tell people what our priorities would be in state funding, rather than describing the exact cuts we would reverse, or indeed simply state the obvious, that we cannot promise to remove specific cuts if the economy will be in the state it is likely to be in by 2015. We need to talk about our plans for improving state education rather than trying to match cut-for-cut. And we need to do this within a new framework of economic sustainability, both financial and environmental, so that we are both credible and progressive, legitimate and exciting, truly social democrats living within the state’s means. And if we think these means must increase, then we must be honest when we talk about tax linked to public services; we must close the loopholes; and we must cut waste from inefficient systems.

Ed is not leading the party to oblivion, but he doesn’t seem to be leading it anywhere. This is the time that we either accept 10 years of in-fighting, seen as the public either as ineffective or as extremists, or we grasp the hope that we have had in the past, build on the successes of 1997-2010, accept the failings, and redefine economics for the future Labour administration. I hope we choose the right path.