Over the last year, each of the movements in the polls had nothing to do with the economy. The first was Libya, the second was the phantom Veto, and the third was Ken Livingstone’s surge from the Fare’s Fair policy. None was related to economic matters.
I said this at the recent Progress event: ‘How Does Labour Solve its Credibility Problem?’ My point was that the poster on the campaign office wall should read, ‘It’s not the Economy, Stupid!’
Anthony Painter, on the panel, disagreed. He argued that polling between elections only reflects the surface; that deeper issues are concealed. He used the recent Scottish election as evidence. Three months before the election, Labour were well in front in the polls, but then lost it.
Maybe he is right, but at least I was very pleased when the chair, Ruth Smeeth, announced that the most retweets of the night were for my remark, ‘If you’ve got a bastard’s job to do, you hire a bastard.’
It’s rather like going for a job up against one other guy, and you cream the interview, but receive the ‘regret to inform’ letter. You email HR for some feedback and they tell you that everyone loved you, but the job requires some tough decisions, and the other guy was an horrible bastard. ‘So we hired him!’
The Tories used to be frightened of being called the ‘nasty party’ but these days it’s Labour that should fear being called ‘nice’. When the Tories proposed changing the planning law, there was an outcry from the countryside lobby, but they faced them down. Labour would have insisted on consultation, and then withdrawn out of a sense of fairness. Voters see us as the party that prefers to reason, rather than confront. They don’t think that’s a bad thing, they just don’t think it helps at a time when tough decisions need to be made.
Other good points from this event came from Steve Van Riel. Who said that, ‘Labour gets worse polling on the economy than the Tories get on the NHS’. Worrying!
Steve also said that ‘The Tories are deciding what gets protected and what doesn’t. Labour agrees with what gets protected, but disagrees with what doesn’t’. He’s right. We made a hash of opposition to the cuts. We should have struck a distinction between their savage and indiscriminate cuts, compared to our targeted and intelligent cuts. Instead we just screamed until we were blue in the face.
Rachel Reeves criticised the Tory strategy, which had caused a whopping £158bn in extra borrowing. She compared the Tories to the Japanese, who have been in recession for 20 years.
From the audience Cllr Philippa Roberts, a small-businesswoman, questioned why there were no business leaders backing our five-point plan.
Meanwhile, David Coats reminded us of how tough Gordon Brown was on spending in his early years. He said that it’s not enough to be Keynesian; you have to be a good Keynesian and run a surplus in the good times. In terms of ideas for demonstrating that we mean what we say, he suggested that we could promise to ‘have our fiscal plans signed off by the OBR’.
All in all it was a very good event. The main purpose that I took away from it is that it’s time to move on. We might have won the economic discussion, but we lost the wider argument. This was partly because it is our deficit. We gave birth to it, suckled it, and watched it take its first few steps. The Tories were brought in to tie it up in a blanket with a couple of bricks, and chuck it in the canal.
We do need to convince people that we are responsible Keynesians. As Steve van Riel said, it’s probably not about promising to keep to rules, but just having the conviction. Like giving up smoking, it won’t last unless you choose not to be a non-smoker ongoing. If we make that choice, we then have to demonstrate our conviction.
For me this was apt, as it’s two weeks since I stopped smoking, and several times a day I could do with a fag, but I just don’t want to be a smoker anymore. I’ve made that decision.