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25.06.13

Balls is no Churchill

I had this on Labour Uncut a few weeks ago.

Politics, as Churchill said, is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. Much of the theatre of politics exists, however, in the unanticipated events to which Macmillan attributed the failure of political plans. While, to paraphrase Lennon, politics is what happens when you are making other plans, plans are politically necessary and should be attuned to the likely and inevitable.

Political tacticians specialise in events. Political strategists identify trends and plan accordingly. The character of politicians is revealed in their handling of events but they are exposed without convincing strategy. And the strategic context that was obvious from the outset of this parliament was the politics of the deficit.

We might have thought in May 2010 that the government’s economic strategy of tough deficit reduction would fail and the public would then turn to Labour. Perhaps we thought that this strategy would fail, causing the government to adopt the Plan B that Labour called for and the public to conclude that Labour was right all along.

Few seriously thought that things would work out precisely as George Osborne forecast in his hopelessly optimistic 2010 budget. The real debate was always about whether this failure in itself would be enough to return support to Labour.

Unsurprisingly, Osborne has not said: “Ed Balls was always right”. We don’t need the spending review to know, however, that the government is failing. But polling published by Labour List contains scant evidence that this failure builds support for Labour on the economy.

As Osborne scraps around to increase the capital budget and Vince Cable cobbles together the kind of active industrial strategy that he previously denounced, agreement with Balls is implicit in their actions. Government policy inches towards Plan B but recognition that this constitutes a Plan B is politically impossible.

The debate seems rhetorically frozen in binary choices: back the government if you think immediate cuts are necessary, back Labour if you don’t; back the government if you think excessive Labour spending explains the need for cuts, back Labour if you don’t. But these choices are too simplistic to be persuasive.

The broad mass of the electorate appreciate that the crash wasn’t caused by the schools and hospitals built by the last government. But they also feel that wasteful spending is now even less tolerable than ever. The notion of wasteful spending appeals to another distinction that the public intuitively understand: not all public spending is as useful or as useless as other kinds.

While most of the public feel taxed enough as it is, there is an acceptance, which the popular revulsion against Starbucks and Google has confirmed, that another way that we can make the sums add up is through tax collection. By whatever means public money is raised, however, the public want that money spent efficiently, which is why the argument that the NHS is safe under the Tories because of the ring-fence is a hallow claim. The public know that what you do with the money matters as much as how much you have at your disposal.

An alternative Labour platform capable of stirring the economic debate out of its binary gridlock has long lain dormant in these public perceptions. We might have shown recognition of the need for cuts by identifying a raft of cuts to current spending that we’d accept.

We might have committed to redirect some of this spending to capital spending, arguing that this does more to boost growth and showing an appreciation that some forms of spending are more important than others.

We might have saved some cuts by dropping the ring-fences and advanced a politics where achievement is judged by outcomes, not by how much is spent.

We might have argued that public finances and growth would be best served by reducing tax on earned income and increasing tax on unearned wealth.

All of these would have been bold choices if Labour had of made them earlier in this parliament. All of them are now, though, becoming conventional wisdom, as the predictable failure of government policy drives thinking on its recalibration.

Osborne wants to shift current to capital spending. Cable wants to increase wealth taxation and reduce income tax on the lowest earners, while cutting winter fuel allowance payments to the richest pensioners. Tony Dolphin of the IPPR wants to drop the ring-fences.

Labour’s failure to lead earlier on these issues means that Ed Balls’ set piece economic speech was insufficient to take ownership of them. We’ve failed to understand politics as Churchill did.

His point is not simply about being prepared for eventuality but about seeming to lead debate. This means properly identifying trends, anticipating what they will mean for debate and getting ahead of this debate.

Of course, you look daft if you falsely read a trend. But the failure to take a calculated risk on where debate is going brings with it the risk that others will take ownership of debate before you do.

That the stuff of what would have been an eye-catching Labour agenda a year or so ago increasingly forms a cross-party consensus is indicative of this.