I know it’s the summer holidays, Ed, but what is Labour’s message?

The failure to hammer home clear views has let the Tories set the terms of debate

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We’re clearing up Labour’s mess. Labour overspent and now we’re balancing the books. A national deficit is like a household budget. Welfare is out of control and lining the pockets of the skivers. The unemployed person or immigrant down the road is living off your hard-earned taxes. Labour is in the pocket of union barons.

Summing up the Tories’ message – poisonous and drenched in myths as it is – in quick, sharp sentences is remarkably easy to do. It has been relentlessly, remorselessly, tediously hammered into the electorate’s skulls. Ministers, backbenchers, and Tory media outriders have been disciplined members of this co-ordinated campaign. When yet another second-rate Tory standard-bearer proclaims that “We’re clearing up the mess Labour left us” on Question Time, hundreds of thousands of lefties instantly curl up in a foetal position, pulling their hair out in lumps, yelping in anguish. But if nonsense is repeated incessantly and is met with a weak challenge, it can soon become received wisdom.

The Tories’ hiring of Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign supremo Jim Messina provoked a sense of betrayal among Labour activists smitten with the current occupant of the White House. Odd, given most British Conservatives would be perfectly politically at home in the US Democratic Party.

But there will be no Obama-esque theme of “hope” in the Tories’ offer in 2015. They have kicked off the long election campaign by borrowing the slogan of knuckle-dragging racists and spraypainting it on government-funded vans, paraded in racially mixed communities; by conducting stop-checks of ethnic minority Britons at stations in the London Underground, demanding proof they should not be ejected from the country; and by using the official Home Office Twitter account to gleefully show bewildered, handcuffed people being thrown into vehicles, describing them as “immigration offenders” in tribute to Britain’s vaunted tradition of innocence until proven otherwise. Prepare for worse. Cameron’s cuddly, modernised Conservatives will shamelessly use taxpayers’ money to exploit people’s fears and prejudices to win the victory that eluded them in 2010.

Where are Labour? Apparently the rationale of Ed Miliband’s advisers for the last three years can be summed up as: “Hey, what’s the rush!” Being coaxed into setting out policies is a Tory trap. “Zen socialism”, it’s been called. It has proved a tragic mistake. Labour didn’t need to set out fully-costed policies at this stage: it just needed to stick to clear, sharp messages that were repeated ad infinitum. Its failure to do so has simply allowed the Tories to set the terms of debate, to allow their narrative to seize control of the public consciousness, and to constantly force Labour on to the defensive.

Ed Miliband toys with a concept, but then appears to get bored with it and moves on. There was the “squeezed middle”, a flawed concept, but one which at least tapped into the longest fall in living standards on record. There was the “British promise”, which focused on the nation’s children being poorer than their parents for the first time since the Second World War. There was “responsible capitalism” – a term I happen to hate – which speaks of predatory capitalists ripping society off. There was “predistribution”, an appallingly wonky term which needed translating into English, but which meant that the consequences of inequality were expensive, so it was better to deal with the causes. Whatever the problems with these messages, at least they were something. It was pointless having them unless they were constantly, unrepentantly drilled into our heads.

The other approach has been to deal with perceived Labour weaknesses with a major speech. The logic is that this will finally succeed in discarding the party’s baggage, and we can all happily move on. But outside of political wonks, no one listens to these speeches. Labour apparatchiks aren’t stupid, of course, and realise this, so they spin top lines to the press – and they are often unrepresentative of Ed Miliband’s more nuanced interventions. But in any case, it is futile: one-off speeches don’t make a dent into the public’s consciousness.

Miliband lacks outriders, too. Andy Burnham has made a commendable job at pummelling the Tories over the NHS, and they hate him for it. But he comes across as an isolated figure. The Shadow Cabinet appears to have made a vow of collective silence. It is the summer recess – the ideal time for Labour to shift the political agenda – and yet we have heard, well, nothing.

One of the great failures of Labour has been not rebutting the myth that overspending left us in this mess. That’s not important because of a sense of wounded pride, to defend the party’s record in office from slander. It is because this narrative allows Labour to be portrayed as reckless with public finances and therefore unfit for office. Labour needs to annihilate this, the great lie of our time. The Tories backed our spending plans pound for pound until the end of 2008, they should say. The huge deficit we now have was caused by a collapse in tax revenues after a financial disaster, and social security spending going up because people lost their jobs. Ireland and Spain had a budget surplus before Lehman Brothers came crashing down, and they were lumbered with deficits, too.

Most social security spending goes on elderly people who pay in all their lives and to whom we owe a decent retirement, Labour should say. Most working-age benefits go to people in work. The vast majority of unemployed people are desperately looking for work: give examples, like a young woman who has sent 50-odd CVs a week, or the 645 people who applied for a single job in Hull. Tax credits are subsidising low pay and housing benefit is subsidising landlords, so we’ll introduce a living wage and let councils build housing – creating jobs, too – which will bring down social security spending.

We are proud to be bank-rolled by hundreds of thousands of supermarket shelf stackers, lollipop ladies and nurses, rather than hedge fund managers and legal loan sharks, should be Labour’s incessant message. It is not unemployed people or immigrants who are making you poorer, but the bankers who plunged Britain into disaster along with the Tories’ austerity policies. Don’t let them off the hook. Borrow from Ronald Reagan, who famously asked in his 1980 presidential campaign: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Contrary to some of Ed Miliband’s detractors, his problem isn’t that he is seen as “left-wing”. Outside of the political bubble, voters do not think in terms of left and right: they think in terms of issues that have to be addressed. Miliband’s main problem is simply people do not know what he stands for. Politicians who are seen to have a backbone, convictions and principles are respected, even by those who disagree with them. And a warning to Labour. If you don’t have a message that can be summed up in short, sharp sentences, your opponents will do it for you. And then you really have lost.

Twitter: @OwenJones84

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