John Rentoul: Johnson learns from the Lib Dems

Promising the earth, on education or cuts, comes back to haunt you. The Shadow Chancellor chooses his words with care

Share
Related Topics

A Tory minister announces plans to take state benefits away from recalcitrant claimants; rioting students smash plate-glass windows across the road from the House of Commons: it feels like the old days. Certainly some Labour MPs, as they looked out of their offices at the revolting students in Parliament Square, felt that they had come home. At last they knew which side they were on.

Yet the untold story of last week was how few Labour MPs felt that way. There were far more who looked out of their windows and worried about their credibility as an alternative government. Most had no difficulty in recognising that this was not the beginnings of a popular reaction against the coalition government.

If anything, they recognised that, had the outcome of the election six months ago been very slightly different, a Labour work and pensions secretary would have published a similar White Paper on welfare reform, and the students would have been breaking windows in Labour's Victoria Street HQ instead.

Hence the importance of the speech last week by Alan Johnson, the Shadow Chancellor, which was far from a strident denunciation of the Tories, their crypto-Tory coalition partners and all their evil works. Although Ed Miliband supported the student demand for a graduate tax to replace tuition fees before he became leader, and although Johnson was reported to have dropped his opposition to a graduate tax, all he said in the speech was that the Shadow Cabinet had agreed to "look at" the policy. My guess is that they will "look at" it for about four years.

On welfare reform, he was more explicit: "The programme pursued by the Government to get people on Incapacity Benefit back to work is exactly the one that we were due to implement over the same period." One of the harshest measures in the last week's White Paper, the "three strikes and you're out" penalty of withdrawing benefit altogether for three years for a third breach of conditions, was proposed by Labour two years ago.

And he offered a big-picture explanation of the Labour strategy for the rest of this parliament: "For Ed Miliband and me, Labour's economic credibility matters. It will be at the heart of everything we do." It sounds obvious: being trusted to manage the economy is the basic condition of electability. But how to do it?

One of Johnson's allies in the Shadow Cabinet – and there are several of them because Ed Miliband is the prisoner of his brother's supporters – explained the "Tardis" strategy to me recently: the way to win the next election is for the party to imagine itself into the future.

Imagine it is November 2014; the general election is six months away. How has the opposition party demonstrated its economic credibility?

First, it must have got its story straight about the state of the public finances it bequeathed to the coalition. Johnson's purpose in his speech was to contest what he called the Government's "fiscal fable" that it had rescued the country from the brink of bankruptcy to which it had been brought by Labour's recklessness.

In his favour, Labour starts in a strong position, the 2010 election having been, in effect, a draw between two rival "fables". On one side, Labour claimed its decisions in the crisis of 2008 meant it could be trusted to protect jobs; on the other, the Tories insisted the books had to be balanced. Johnson also has the advantage of being right. As he pointed out, the Tories supported Labour's spending plans in 2007: "If our political opponents thought that spending was out of control, that was the time to say so."

Now, however, the coalition has the advantage of being in power. It can drive home a simple message: that it came into office to clean up the mess. The idea that the spending cuts are Labour's fault is not taking root yet, but repetition and the passage of time could nurture the myth – especially as there is a germ of truth in it, in that Gordon Brown carried on borrowing too long in the boom years.

Johnson's task is to fight the mythical part, and thus preserve and build Labour's reputation for economic competence, which is damaged but not broken. Labour is not where it was after the winter of discontent in 1978-79, or where the Tories were after the ERM humiliation in 1992. But kneejerk opposition and impossible promises need to be avoided.

Douglas Alexander, welfare spokesman, writing in these pages last Sunday, showed how to do it, supporting Iain Duncan Smith's reforms in principle while reserving the right to criticise specifics if the Institute for Fiscal Studies says they are a bad idea. In his speech, Johnson hugged the Work and Pensions Secretary close by describing him as "the right man in the right job at the wrong time in the wrong government".

The question is whether Ed Miliband realises, for example, that the graduate tax should be allowed to fade away. He should know that Nick Clegg did not make his U-turn for fun: there are genuine problems with the policy. Miliband needs to look at the issue from the vantage point of 2015, by which time the question will be how to adapt tuition fees, not scrap them.

There is a bigger lesson too of looking at the next election through the other end of the telescope. Which is that the Opposition has to assume that the coalition will be a success. That in November 2014 the public finances are on the mend, the main criticism of welfare reforms is that they haven't gone far enough and the economy is growing. A party that had opposed the cuts and promised the moon would lack credibility.

Johnson asserted himself against his leader in an interview yesterday, saying that the new 50p top rate of income tax – which Miliband wants to make permanent – should be only "for the times we are in".

The Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary understand how to win. Does the leader?

independent.co.uk/jrentoul; Twitter.com/JohnRentoul

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Web Development Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Service and Installation Engineer

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: SEO / Outreach Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is a global marketin...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress – arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?