Leading article: Where is the Labour alternative?

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The Independent Online

This was the biggest week yet for the Coalition Government.

On Wednesday, George Osborne's Comprehensive Spending Review laid out the most drastic fiscal consolidation since the Second World War. It was, therefore, a golden opportunity for the Opposition to propose an alternative approach to Britain's economic predicament. But Labour's response fell flat.

In his acceptance speech at Labour's conference last month, the party's new leader, Ed Miliband, said he would not oppose every cut announced by the Coalition. He was right to do so. The price of economic credibility is support for policies that, though unpopular, are necessary for the country's long-term economic health. Labour would have had to cut public spending too if the party had won May's election. In the early 1990s, Gordon Brown worked tirelessly to convince the public that Labour could be trusted with the economy. With David Cameron and Nick Clegg now arguing that Labour, once again, cannot be allowed near the Treasury, it is a job that needs to be repeated.

Refuting the Coalition's attack on Labour's economic competence is the primary task for Mr Miliband. He and Alan Johnson, his new shadow Chancellor, of course need time to identify programmes which they feel should be cut. But their learning curve must be steep. Given the gravity of the context, Mr Johnson was unwise to joke that, on learning of his new appointment, he would be seeking out a primer in economics. He was a contentious appointment, chosen more for the sake of party unity than for his grasp of the dismal science. Mr Miliband eschewed the better qualified Ed Balls. Mr Johnson will need to raise his game if this choice is not to be go down as a mistake.

This week, Labour seemed to delegate the task of defending both the poor and the so-called "squeezed middle" to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. That is unfortunate given the public appetite for an alternative to the Coalition's dangerous rush to eradicate the deficit. To many people, the fact of coalition government means we have already gone from having three major political parties to just two. This is no time for Labour to go missing.