According to press chatter, there is mounting worry amongst those that surround Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. I don’t know anybody in this elite circle, and I can’t offer an opinion on whether this is true. What I can say is that it should be. After ducking hard choices when the going was good, he is now in real trouble.
The immediate cause of the Labour wobble, if that is what it was, was the poll bounce for the Conservatives after the recent Budget by the Chancellor, George Osborne. The previously secure Labour lead simply vanished. This poll bounce disappeared as quickly as it came. Clever charts showing that it was part of a longer-term trend look premature. But it did show that Labour support is not solid, and that the Tories are not quite as terminally unpopular as many suggested.
But what really convinces me that Labour are in deep trouble is this exclusive piece in yesterday’s Independent, highlighting an article Mr Miliband had written for the paper. Here’s the first paragraph:
Ed Miliband has promised to rescue Britain’s struggling middle classes by boosting their living standards as he warns that the “cost-of-living crisis” will last for at least another five years.
This seems to be part of a bid by Mr Miliband to rebuild his electoral standing; today he is launching a policy about devolving more power to “super-City” regions, building on a policy developed by the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, as he will not say.
This political drive builds on two themes that Mr Miliband has been developing. The first is “the squeezed middle” – a deliberately vague reference to people who feel they are neither favoured by government handouts, nor part of the rich elite. It is interesting that this seems to have migrated to “the struggling middle classes”, when it might just as easily refer to working classes (if you get beyond the bureaucrats’ tendency to use the term “working class” to refer to people who are not working, and entitled to state support, as an alternative to the word “poor”). The second idea is “the cost of living crisis”, referring to the fact that for most people incomes have not increased as fast as prices over the course of the last government.
No doubt Labour’s polling shows that these ideas cover a large swathe of generally unhappy people, who might therefore be sceptical of the government’s record. The problem is how to appeal to them. Almost by definition, these people are out of the scope of state benefits. In fact they tend to resent the size of the state benefits bill, apart from the old age pension, whose cost they tend to underestimate. They are not employees of the state, a separate and distinct constituency, even if they share some of the same problems). So how to address their standard of living? There are two ways: tax cuts and a stronger private sector economy. On both counts Labour’s credibility is behind that of the Coalition.
The best sort of tax cut to reach the squeezed middle is a cut to personal allowances, i.e. the point at which people start to pay tax (including its National Insurance equivalent, something all parties seem happy to ignore). But the Coalition has already been increasing this quite aggressively, mainly at the expense of higher rate tax payers, some of whom are now claiming to be part of the squeezed middle too. Worse, it is one of the few policies that is closely identified by the public with the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition, which Labour is extremely keen to denigrate – they have picked up a lot of ex Lib Dem voters. They have floated the idea of a 10% tax band, which is just a less efficient way of delivering the same policy – and has uncomfortable echoes with one of the last Labour government’s policy mistakes.
There is an even bigger problem with taxes. Labour has to convince voters that it will not put taxes up to pay for an expanded state. That means signing up to a series of things, like a cap on benefits expenditure, that will be unpopular with core Labour voters, and not even particularly sensible from the point of view of economic management.
But tax cuts are a fairly minor palliative. What would really cheer voters up is the prospect of incomes rising in the private sector. The trouble is that Labour has done nothing to dispel its reputation for being anti-business. Quite the opposite. Mr Miliband’s view is that there are good businesses (“producers”) and bad ones (“predators”). Wages are being squeezed by the predators to benefit their top managers and shareholders. So his anti-business policies are directed at these predators (banks and energy companies to the fore), while helping the producers. This argument is not entirely without merit, but it is a tough sell. And in practice it is pretty much impossible to create policies that discriminate successfully between the two classes of business, and all those that inhabit the grey zones in between. The result is that Labour’s policies designed to address this problem, such as the devolution to the cities, don’t look as if they will deliver much of a boost to wages in the short term – even if they are perfectly sensible. And sensible policies are liable to get matched or pinched by the coalition parties anyway.
The Conservative counterattack to Labour will point to the fragility of the current economic recovery, and say “Don’t put all this at risk”. Of course one thing that could put the fragile recovery at risk is the Conservative plan for a referendum on the EU. But does Labour want to go out with all guns blazing on that issue? Perhaps I underestimate Mr Miliband, and that is his plan. But so far he is happy for Mr Clegg to take the lead on the issue. In fact you could not inaccurately describe Labour’s emerging strategy as “I agree with Nick”. A liberal, centre-ground stance that wants more devolution from Westminster, but with a strong attachment to the EU.
So Labour is embarking on an impossible task to convince the electorate that it can out-do the coalition parties at their own policies. This won’t work. But what it will do is to de-motivate their core constituencies of public sector workers and the squeezed bottom, as I might call the voters suffering from benefits cuts.
The trouble is that Labour hoped to get the best of both worlds after Mr Miliband was elected. That they could adopt a “Blair-lite” strategy that allowed an appeal to the centre ground, while at the same time harnessing the wave of anger from their core voters at the government’s austerity policies, which, incidentally, allowed them to harvest a lot of Lib Dem voters. But Blair-lite lacked credibility as soon as the economy started to revive. There was a choice to be made for either Blair II, an unashamed dash for the middle ground, including an apology for the record of the last government’s economic policies (though that would have been too much for Mr Blair himself). Or they could have gone for unashamed social democracy, making a case for higher taxes, a bigger state, and less aggression on cutting the deficit (isn’t going for a balanced budget just willy-waving after all?). The first of these two choices might well have destroyed the party, given the depth of anger over “The Cuts” – but the second choice was never properly debated or confronted. It would have been perfectly respectable and courageous – even if expanding the state back to the size it was in 2008, or even 2010, would have taken a very long time.
The Conservative General Election campaign has not got started yet. They will allow Ukip their moment of glory in this year’s Euro elections, then quietly mug their voters by stoking up fears of Labour. Labour’s credibility will fall apart, and they will have increasing trouble fending off Tory attacks and keeping their core supporters loyal.
If I was advising Ed Miliband, I would be worried.