John Rentoul: Ed Miliband needs a plan, and soon

Labour politicians' answer to the question, 'What would you do?' invariably starts with, 'Not this'

Related Topics

British politics has come full circle. In the the Sixties, it was a toff who was mocked for his self-deprecation. Sir Alec Douglas-Home had said, in an interview in The Observer in 1962, when asked if he might become prime minister, "No, because I do my sums with match sticks." A year later, Harold Wilson, the dynamic young Leader of the Opposition, would not let him forget it, and it helped to paint him as a genial old buffer who was out of touch.

Today, it is a working-class Shadow Chancellor who takes modesty too far. Asked when he was appointed what he would do first, Alan Johnson said: "Pick up a primer, Economics for Beginners, and read it over the weekend." Thus did he disable himself in responding to the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Last week's clash in the Commons between George Osborne and Johnson was Competence vs Character. The Chancellor came across as a bit squeaky, partisan and too clever by half. He must learn to pause, or the entire Chamber will be gasping for air waiting for him to breathe. (As it was, we survived only because he had to stop frequently to drink from his glass of water.) But we had no doubt that he knew what he was talking about. His shadow came across as relaxed, witty and making it up as he went along.

We have been here before. For all of the 1980s, in fact, when Labour MPs were regarded as nicer people but clueless, while the Conservatives were hard-hearted but doing what had to be done. That would be a prism through which David Cameron and his Chancellor would be happy to have us see the next five years.

It could work better for them this time, though, because they have the Liberal Democrats on board, which means that they have some nice people co-opted to front up some of the harder decisions that they feel bound to take. Never mind that the layer of niceness has already been ground down to 10 per cent in the opinion polls, a thickness not seen since that Dianified moment in late 1997 when Tony Blair had an approval rating of 93 per cent. The point is that, as well as winning on Competence vs Character, they are on the right side of the Strategy vs Tactics divide.

Osborne may keep resorting to the disreputable tricks of the old enemy (there were moments when his delivery resembled Gordon Brown's transposed half an octave higher), but it cannot be doubted that he has a strategy. He tried to catch Labour out by pretending that his cuts were not as deep as those proposed by Alistair Darling, of which Chris Giles at the Financial Times said: "This sort of deception really should be beneath a Chancellor of the Exchequer." But the big picture is that he is taking tough decisions to balance the books, and the instant opinion polls suggest that the voters agree that this is necessary and right.

Against that, Labour sounds as if it is not sure that the books need to be balanced. Which they don't, of course. There have been precious few fiscal years since the Second World War when the public finances have been in surplus. Once or twice, such as in 1976 and now, what Sky News last week called the "ballooning shortfall" threatened either to escape into the upper atmosphere or to fall short, and emergency action had to be taken.

But to eliminate the structural deficit altogether in four years? That is neither desirable nor likely to be achieved. The trouble is that you need to sound like an economist to argue that case. Gavyn Davies, who used to be Labour's economics guru, wrote knowledgeably last week about why the public spending cuts as announced were unlikely to be achieved. Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist who praised Gordon Brown for saving the world, wrote in The New York Times about why it would be a disaster taking us back to the 1930s if they were achieved.

That is not the kind of stuff that Alan Johnson can do. Ed Balls, whose face failed to conceal his opinion that he should have been delivering the response to the spending review on Wednesday, could do it, but that would not work either, because he has been infected with a Brownite selectivity in arguing a case that makes him sound as if he is in denial even when he is right.

In his The New Machiavelli published this month, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, says: "Ed Balls, who had been a pleasant young man as a Financial Times leader-writer, was transformed by his connection with Gordon." And Balls is the member of Brown's entourage about whom Powell is relatively complimentary. "Ed's judgement may have been flawed, but at least he could reach a decision rather than putting it off indefinitely." Brown's inability to take a decision, he says, seemed to "infect" the rest of his "immediate circle". One of that circle, of course, was Ed Miliband.

Edward Miliband, as Hansard styles him, has made a start in trying to prove Powell wrong about that, but so far he is all tactics and no strategy. As Cameron patronisingly told him in the warm-up for the spending review: "If you have not got a plan, you cannot attack a plan." Labour politicians are being knocked about in the Commons, and in every broadcast studio into which they go, because their answer to the obvious question, "What would you do?", starts off with "Not this", before moving quickly on to: "We are in opposition."

There ought to be obvious dangers in responding to the cuts by saying that they will hurt the poor, as this looks as if the party is simply defending welfare spending. But there are obvious opportunities that are not being taken in opposing cuts to police and courts budgets. This isn't about economics – as ever, that can be argued either way – it is about a strategy for the country.

Miliband does not have long to settle the doubts. Is he indecisive? Does he have a plan?

Follow John Rentoul on Twitter at:

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

When a small amount of desk space means the world

Rebecca Armstrong
It’s all in the detail; Ed Miliband with ‘Britain Can Be Better’ (AFP/Getty)  

General Election 2015: Parties must remember the 50-plus vote

Stefano Hatfield
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own