In 1997, Tony Blair won an election by occupying the traditional home ground of the Tories. In 2010, Gordon Brown fought off the Tories by creating a clear dividing line between us and them. Today, Ed Miliband’s strategy is less easy to define, but I contend that it involves avoiding debate with the Tories. This is not good. This can be extremely damaging.
Miliband said at conference 2012: “The Labour party lost trust on the economy. And under my leadership, we will regain that trust.” I don’t think he has increased trust in the Labour brand. In some ways it has been damaged since he made this speech.
The Tories have a far more coherent economic policy than we do. Even though the whole world agrees that we were right and they were wrong, they have a clear offer and we have a confused one. Ed Balls and Rachel Reeves did a terrific job of explaining the difference between austerity and Keynesianism, but our commitment to a Keynesian offer has been vague and tentative. This is in contrast to Gordon Brown who confronted and contrasted Tory policy with our own Keynesian plan.
Most of the debate on the economy is over now, and people have a settled view of the parties. It’s likely that we are returning to positive growth, although few would attribute this to the government’s policies, so it is questionable as to whether they will benefit at the polls, even if the feel-good factor returns. Trust, in general, is likely a more important issue at the next election.
The problem with trust is that it is a two-way relationship. Would you trust someone who doesn’t trust you? Of course not. Would you trust a politician who won’t tell you his policy? Of course not.
How about a politician who won’t tell you his policy, because the other guys will attack it, and he thinks that you are incapable of sifting the arguments? No, you wouldn’t take kindly to that either.
Far too often, Miliband backs away from debate. Cameron has made a mess out of most things, but he isn’t scared of having a conversation with the British people. He makes a mockery of PMQs, but he gets his arguments across to the public. In the absence of a fierce debate, the electorate may choose to brush aside Labour for being too vague, and instead give Cameron a second chance.
I don’t think that our membership of the EU should be a major issue in the modern day, but the Tories are making it one, and Labour aren’t engaging. Labour are attacking the Tories for being divided, but that’s a cop-out. No one knows what Labour’s position is on the EU, and as long as only the Tories are having a discussion, then a negative view of the EU will persist and grow.
I can understand that Ed Miliband got his fingers burnt with the welfare debate. He let the genie out of the bottle when he spoke in favour of welfare. When he tried to put the lid back on by whipping a minor vote on workfare, he faced a rebellion. He should have confronted that rebellion. Being a consensus seeker doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to get pushed around.
I don’t think we should be in favour of a referendum. The only argument for a referendum is that we haven’t had one since the ‘70s. On that basis, maybe we should go back to farthings and shillings because modern coinage is not the same as the stuff we agreed to in 1971.
The only genuine reason for a referendum is to deal with an internal division in the Conservative Party. They are a mixture of Little Englanders and hard-core free marketers who want to get rid of employment rights. I say let them sort out their own mess, but in the meantime, let us take the opportunity to engage them in a debate about the issues.
Let’s have the British people considering the issues of the EU rather than considering whether the Labour Party are shifty. Let’s stop hiding and start debating. Let’s regain trust by having a good old fashioned political debate.