2:59 pm - August 13th 2013
In a long piece, John Harris informs us that it’s all going wrong for Labour:
Labour is belatedly trying to make the running on the crisis in people’s living standards. Policy-wise, there has been talk of building new houses, putting young unemployed people back to work, coming down hard on profiteering energy firms, and more. The problem is that all this has not yet cohered into a consistent and primary-coloured message that can cut through such clunky Labour promises as “a recovery made by the many” (whatever that is).
Elsewhere, Mark Ferguson complains that activists are being “sent onto the doorstep” without a clear message. (No-one sends me. I go of my own accord.)
All this and more fits neatly with the rightwing media’s seizure of the Burnham interview to portray Labour, and Miliband’s leadership, in crisis.
And it’s all utter tosh.
It’s perfectly logical to see the Burnham interview, not as an attack on Miliband, but as a carefully placed contribution, in collaboration with the leader’s office, aimed at clearing out some media space for the upcoming conference season, so that Miliband gets more of a hearing for the more concrete policy announcements around childcare, payday lending and the NHS that he will almost certainly make. Burnham makes the point that we need to firm up the policy offer. Miliband says that’s absolutely right, and does just that – the oldest win-win trick in politics.
More importantly though, the criticism of Labour’s failure to adopt many concrete proposals ignores, in its desperation to find fault with Miliband’s leadership, that coming out with concrete policy proposals 20 months before the election is not a very good way to win that election. That’s because the majority of voters, either because of memory decay or interference, simply don’t remember what those proposals were, even over the space of a few weeks,
While Miliband may be right to throw in a few firmed up proposals at conference just to prove that he can, it makes little sense to be offering up a firm programme for government. Much better to focus, albeit against a hostile media so with limited success, on the broad message – that the economic recovery may be underway, but not in a way from that most people will benefit from.
But what Miliband’s detractors also miss – either wilfully or stupidly – is the process he and his team are actually engaged in, which will pay dividends when the time comes to set out the policy ideas.
Here’s what this process boils down to:
1. Acknowledge that overall spending must be affordable in 2015 in order to give off the economic competence vibe;
2. But also stress that proper recovery requires investment;
3. Start with a focus on investment in physical infrastructure, which even the Tories now accept is needed;
4. Over time, subtly change the way the term infrastructure is defined, so that it becomes inclusive of ‘social infrastructure’ such as childcare (here’s Lucy Powell doing just that)
5. Develop careful cost-benefit analyses to work out what social infrastructure investments have an overall positive effect e.g. what £5-7bn per year on childcare will actually do to the economy;
All this is happening steadily, behind the scenes. As the months go by, it will be less and less behind the scenes. At the right time, it will all emerge as a carefully costed plan.
Now, of course I disagree with the overall strategy, which I would describe as In the Black Labour with Brains; I would much rather have seen an earlier, more explicit rejection of this need for overall fiscal balance, because even in the medium term fiscal balance in a properly functioning economy is simply not needed. But that required a political momentum the left as a whole lost in the 2010-11 period, and it’s silly to blame Miliband’s leadership for that.
And I also think the managerialist culture inherent in such IPPR-style cost-benefit approaches to the resolution of ‘social problems’ creates dangerous perversities, but that’s for another blogpost (see Stumbling and Mumbling for sense on this overlooked but important issue in socialist politics).
But within the parameters set both by the Labour leadership and the left as a whole,, Miliband’s getting his strategy, and his timing, spot on. It’s just a shame that John Harris and the others are so focused on Miliband’s leadership messaging and leadership qualities – largely an irrelevance at this stage – that they’ve not actually noticed the work that’s been going on.
Paul Cotterill is a regular contributor, and blogs more regularly at Though Cowards Flinch, an established leftwing blog and emergent think-tank. He currently has fingers in more pies than he has fingers, including disability caselaw, childcare social enterprise, and cricket.
· Other posts by Paul Cotterill
Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Westminster
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