Leading article: Ed Miliband's next challenge

Share
Related Topics

The new Labour leader faces one issue above all, and that is the state of the public finances. It is the question the Liberal Democrats failed to answer satisfactorily when they joined the coalition. Nick Clegg's party put on an impressive show of honesty at its annual conference in Liverpool last week, except on the issue of the deficit. Mr Clegg and his colleagues rightly refused to apologise for working with another party to secure many Liberal objectives, but on the deficit they retreated to Thatcherite simplicities for simpletons.

Mr Clegg in his speech compared the national finances to those of a household, a favourite device of Margaret Thatcher's, which simply fails to engage with the argument made by most serious economists: that public spending should not be cut too soon or too fast. The danger of the coalition government's policy is that curbing demand will cut employment, reduce tax receipts and postpone our eventual emergence from the pit of debt into which we were pitched by the global financial crisis.

Of course, any responsible government has to weigh such factors against its creditworthiness, preserving Britain's AAA rating. But the idea that, between the election on 6 May and the signing of the coalition agreement on 11 May, the Greek sovereign debt crisis shifted the balance of risk is a little too convenient to be credible.

Ed Miliband ought to have an easy task. But the manner of his election, as the beneficiary of the trade union machine against the instincts of Labour MPs and party members turns it into a steep slope.

The easy thing would be for him to oppose each and every cut in the Comprehensive Spending Review next month. It might even earn Labour a reward in the opinion polls, but such gains would not be based on deep foundations – for two reasons. One is that everyone knows that the deficit was made worse by the fiscal irresponsibility of the Labour government, and that a Labour government, had it been re-elected, would have had to cut public spending too, albeit later and less. The other is that the deficit will look very different by the time of the next election, and a double-dip recession will either have become a reality or will have disappeared into the dustbin of forgotten fears.

One day, however, the argument for Keynesian stimulus will weaken and it will become more important to balance the books. Mr Miliband has to avoid being boxed in as a spendthrift opponent of all cuts, which means learning the right lessons not just from Labour's history but from the coalition in the here and now.

For all the rhetoric about moving on from the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown era, Labour needs to relearn the lesson of the early New Labour years, the rigorous policy preparation of 1994-97. This was when Mr Blair and Mr Brown, working together despite deep personal tensions, ruthlessly eliminated vote-losing hostages to fortune and tried to think ahead to what the big early decisions in government would be.

There are also important lessons to be learned from the coalition. So far, it has impressed with the sense that it is a "no-headline" government. This may be a trick of presentation, but David Cameron and Mr Clegg behave as if their eyes are on the horizon rather than on the morning's newspapers or tonight's bulletins. Second, it has been a collegiate government. Partly, this has been forced on Mr Cameron by the need to work with the Lib Dems, but partly it seems as if the Prime Minister is confident enough to avoid the compulsion to be, personally, identified with every "eye-catching initiative" in the way that Mr Blair did. The third lesson is, of course, that it is a coalition, and Labour may need to deal with the Liberal Democrats, either before 2015 or after the next election – for there is no guarantee that it will deliver a Labour majority. That means that Ed Miliband ought to mind his language about the Lib Dems, eschewing the lexicon of treachery and betrayal for that of fellow-feeling and common ground.

Thus the lesson for the new leader can be boiled down to the truism: elections in this country are won in the centre ground. Easy to say; harder to act upon rigorously. Easy to take for granted when Labour came out of the last election in a stronger position than most members expected. Easy to feel that the job is done when Labour is the main repository of protest votes. But first he has to persuade the country that he deserves a job handed to him by a trade union stitch-up.

The test for Mr Miliband is whether he can resist the easy path.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam