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Tuesday, June 04, 2013 

Breaking out of the Tory trap.

Trying to get your head around where Labour stands less than two years away from the election isn't easy. In theory, the party looks to be in decent shape: ahead in the polls, Ed Miliband the most secure main party leader, however strange that seems, and proven right about austerity choking off growth, as even the EU has now acknowledged.

And yet, things could clearly be better. The poll lead is shallow to say the least, Ed Miliband's ratings are as bad as Cameron's, and the party isn't trusted on the economy, despite the coalition's abject failings. Labour Uncut at times reads like a journal of despair. The pessimists know how difficult it is to defeat a government after a single term, even one as unconventional as our unholy coalition, while the optimists cling to the fact that the governing party hasn't succeeded in increasing their share of the vote at the next election since 1974.

If there is one message coming through loud and clear from the electorate at the moment, it's contempt for politicians in general. Nor is this surprising when the economy's lousy, wages are falling in real terms and when there isn't any real alternative on offer from the opposition, let alone the promise of something better to come. It doesn't exactly inspire then when Ed Balls comes out and all but commits to keeping to the level of spending set out by the coalition for 2015/16 should Labour win the election.

For that was the real story to come out of the speech Balls made yesterday morning.  This wasn't the first time that Balls had all but suggested the party would do so, only the last time he did there was such a (justified) outcry from the unions that the subject wasn't broached again.  Yesterday, apart from a few noises from the GMB union, there was no such protest.  Partially, that's down to how things have changed since and how catastrophic the coalition's helming of the economy has been.  An economy that was beginning to recover in 2010 has since stagnated, making the next government's inheritance potentially even worse than the one the coalition had in 2010 and which they have made so much of ever since.  It's also a recognition though that regardless of widespread discontent, there hasn't been anything approaching a unified protest against austerity, unlike on the continent.

It's exceptionally close to being a paradox.  The often heard complaint is that politicians are all the same, and it's certainly true that on most domestic measures there's little real difference between the main three.  At the same time though voters tell pollsters they don't trust a party that's offering a subtle but significant difference to the government's economic policy, leading that party to move to reassure voters they can be trusted by signing up to their overall spending plan.  That doesn't mean they'll spend on the same things, just that the same overall amount will be splashed out.  This, Labour's thinking goes, will be the message that gets through.

Except as we saw, through also looking for specific spending to cut in an attempt to respond to Tory jibes about opposing everything, the media focused on means testing winter fuel payments.  Balls also suggested stopping free schools from opening in areas where there's plenty of secondary capacity already, abolishing police commissioners and cancelling "titan" prisons as other areas where savings could be made, but these strangely didn't have the same impact as stopping payments to well-off pensioners.  Much nonsense was spoken about how this could be the beginning of the end of universal benefits, or how the Tories might exploit Labour's change of position, when it's clear this was designed to be a gesture and little more.

Deserving of far more concern is that Balls floated the idea of having an overall welfare cap that differs according to the cost of housing around the country, meaning effectively it should be higher in London where prices are silliest, very one nation, and that on Thursday Ed Miliband is due to give a speech that is being briefed as Labour agreeing with the Tories on the need for a "structural" cap on welfare spending.  There's no point whatsoever in saving £100m by stopping payments to comfortable pensioners if there are then further cuts to working age benefits that have already been so squeezed by the coalition, as the IFS today made clear.

All this feeds into Labour's biggest problem: the party hasn't worked out where it intends to stand and fight come the election.  Despite the sloganising, Miliband still has failed to set out exactly how he intends to tame predator capitalism, nor has he attempted to define what he means by One Nation Labour.  He and Balls have said they want to bring back the 10p tax rate, but not explained how that would fit in with changes made under the coalition.  The party rightly opposed the 1% freeze on benefits, yet now seems to have decided to give in and ape the Tories.  With the rise of UKIP politics is undoubtedly being pulled further towards the right, and there are plenty within Labour who are perfectly happen to continue with the old policy of triangulation, epitomised by the murmurings over allying with the Tories to get the communications bill through in the face of Lib Dem opposition.

Needed most of all is a vision that contradicts the Tory myth of being in a global race where the only way to compete is by slashing hard won rights and protections.  We already know how the Tories intend to fight in 2015: attack Miliband as a creature of the unions, say all Labour want to do is borrow more, and claim they are incapable of taking tough decisions.  The best possible answer to that is for Miliband to set out how he intends to govern, as the knowledge that he couldn't possibly be as terrible at it as the coalition isn't going to cut it.  Nor is Ed Balls' message that the answer to too much is austerity is more austerity going to suffice.  Labour can win in 2015, but will fail miserably if the best the two Eds can offer is that they'll be the Tories with a kinder face.

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