Saturday, 14 January 2012

Labour should concentrate on doing its job, not writing the 2015 budget

Let's face it, the last few hours aren't great if you are on the left or centre-left of British politics. A curious interview between Ed Balls - an intelligent MP with a good understanding of economics - with the Guardian has turned into a PR headache.

The aim, no doubt to some in Labour high command, was to try to counter the relatively disappointing poll position that Labour finds itself in with regards to questions of economic competence by convincing Balls - a proponent of Keynesian economics - to nuance his rhetoric with some soundbites on the economy designed to please the right-wing press.

Balls now appears to have backtracked on the interview somewhat. But there are three problems with the interview 24 hours earlier:

First, there is no point trying to write the 2015 budget in opposition, 3 years before the election. None. Yes, voters want to see what you believe in, but most aren't listening at this stage and, if they are, want to hear your response to current problems, not those of 3 years time.

Second, Ed Balls was right in his approach over the last 18 months. His assertions - and those of like-minded economists like Paul Krugman and David Blanchflower - that cutting deeply during a recession in the private sector would damage economic growth have come to pass. The downgrading of austerity-mad EU countries across the EU for pursuing deficit-cutting mania has served to justify this position. Confusing the message that he Balls been giving on these issues doesn't help.

Third, the right-wing press can't be won over. Never. And neither is there a future left in triangulation, in out-flanking the Tories on the right, despite what the likes of John Rentoul and Dan Hodges might argue. It's a route to electoral oblivion.

The real battle - opposing the attack on social democracy

What Labour should be doing is trying to defend some the cornerstones of British social democracy that are under attack in the name of 'defecit reduction'. The horrendous assault on the National Health Service is one. The government's Health and Social Care Bill will turn one of the fairest - and most efficient - health systems into a fragmented, bureaucratic, privatised mess that will emulate some of the worst aspects of the near-bankrupt US system.

MPs like Andy Burnham know this. Forging alliances with like-minded people and parties across the political spectrum to defend the NHS is crucial - and is popular.

Yes, many aspects of the polls at the moment don't look good for Labour. But it's worth bearing in mind that the last election was in 2010, which itself ended 13 years of Labour rule. Panic-driven interviews, hopelessly misguided press releases and confusing messages won't change it. Sticking to a principled, but realistic will.

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