In defence of Labour’s policy vacuum – Ed Miliband has a plan

2:59 pm - August 13th 2013

by Paul Cotterill    

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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.

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About the author
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.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Westminster

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Reader comments

“…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” Lucky the majority of the country disagree with you then!!!

It’s not the same plan that the Cylons had is it?

` what £5-7bn per year on childcare will actually do to the economy;’

Bankrupt it probably. That’s an enormous subsidy for employers. Why not shorten the working week then working men and women can look after their own children? Does it make economic sense to pay women to go to work looking after their own kids and it will be women manning these child-minding factories.

As for investment well there is nothing profitable unless you have a monopoly or near monopoly which is why the private sector is profiteering and cash-hoarding. You seem to be suggesting that the government borrow money from these people to build crappy infrastructure such as HS2 to the benefit of these same people leaving the state even harder up. We’ve got enough, probably too much, infrastructure in terms of quantity we need to improve its quality – green it up, gear it to human needs instead of the needs of profit, modernise it. But if you decide to go ahead with rubbish infrastructure white elephants like this then at least get the money from the corporations that will benefit. It is no wonder that Labour are losing the argument over economic competence. This is a recipe for rampant inflation.

It hardly matters if Miliband has a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel, while he lets the Tories and the right wing press set the agenda, while he fills the shadow cabinet with right wingers, idlers and incompetents, while he cannot muzzle Progress or Unite, while he will not, cannot or dare not oppose the unprecedented malignance and corruption of this government, then he will remain a pointless twerp in the eyes of potential voters.

But if you decide to go ahead with rubbish infrastructure white elephants like this then at least get the money from the corporations that will benefit.

This sort of battle can actually be witnessed in microcosm every year around autumn time, roundabout when it comes time to figure out who’s going to pay for Christmas decorations down the high street.

If we’re going to try cost/benefit analysis, we must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. It’s very easy to see through a fiddled analysis as we all know, so the analysis must be rigorous and we need to show which policies do not pass.

Let’s briefly analyse a recent by-election to see if Labour is on course.

Ynys Mon/Anglesey – welsh assembly election. Triggered by Plaid’s Ieuen Wyn Jones standing down.

This was a chance for Welsh Labour to obtain a majority in the assembly for the first time in years, and objectively the prospects of them doing this were good – they already hold the seat at Westminster with a reasonable majority, and the incumbant assembly member (who had built up a personal vote) was standing down. Furthermore, Plaid have been divided on the issue of nuclear power for years – and the prospect of a new nuclear power station on the island creating 6000 jobs should have been a key selling point for labour. With no other elections in Wales for the rest of the year, and the obvious prize of a majority at stake, you would have expected Labour to throw everything at it.

But they lost to Plaid, who ended up having their biggest ever election win, despite reports suggesting labour had spent 100k on the campaign.

Why? Because they were too incompetent and arrogant to even spend the briefest amount of time considering the local area.

Anglesey is a constituency that has been held by all 4 parties in it’s history, and at local government level has a history of electing independents. Furthermore, being a local person from the island has always been an advantage to any candidate, perhaps more so than in other areas.

So you would have thought given these circumstances Labour would have selected a local person to stand for them – perhaps somebody active in the local council, a local businessman or something.

But they didn’t. They parachuted in the son of a former blairite minister who didn’t live in the constituency, much to the annoyance of the local activists. There were no visits from labour big wigs outside of Wales either.

Plaid did the opposite and picked a local resident living in the area, who had done something outside of politics and who was sending his kids to the local school. They also energised their activists to campaign.

The result is labour almost lost 2nd place to UKIP, and what was a reasonably safe seat for Westminster now looks in jeapordy.

Arrogance and cockiness about an area they thought was their own, and a failure to even be competent enough to pick a local candidate in a constituency where that matters mean they don’t have a majority government in Wales. Continuing with the current way of organising will not win them a majority if this by-election is anything to go by.

Personally I think Labour should focus on restoring Jimmy Savile’s reputation. It’s terrible what’s been done to him since he died.

9. Man On Clapham Omnibus

I think there is a simpler explanation. The Milliband regime is incompetent. It is not a question of hunkering down to sort out what might happen in a couple of years. Labour should have pretty much stuck it on the Tories throughout this dismal parliament.God knows they’ve had enough ammunition. The biggest problem Labour have got is they said sorry for the Blair years and now its a done deal. Whilst they certainly do have a lot to be sorry about with the walking embarrassment that is Tony Blair they should nonetheless be proud of many of the achievements in health and welfare. Lets not either forget Brown and Darling’s excellent stewardship after the bankster crash of 2008.

However it has to be said that the biggest problem Labour has got is that Britain just isn’t saveable any more. The Tories don’t have the same issues. For them,if the boat starts to leak they will just chuck off a few more prols.

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