Prime Minister’s Questions has, in recent months, been dogged by a circularity which says a great deal about the current state of British politics. The normal exchange between Ed Miliband and David Cameron goes something like this: Miliband accuses Cameron of a demonstrably incompetent and failing economic strategy, whereby austerity is simply not working – as Britain’s flat lining growth figures testify to. Cameron then declares he and his front bench are clearing up the economic mess that Labour has left, in reducing the deficit and getting control of the public debt. Miliband, then points out the Coalition are even failing on their own terms, since the deficit is in fact rising – 7.3% higher than last year. This will then predictably lead to Cameron enquiring: if Miliband’s got a problem with the deficit, why does he want to spend more, since that was what got us into this disastrous economic hole in the first place.
This is the real political issue over the economy, Miliband is being handed bad news upon bad news about growth statistics, deficit reduction and youth unemployment of which to throw at the Prime Minister. Unfortunately the full force of Miliband’s critique is hampered by memories of the New Labour years under Blair, where intervention by the state in economic activity was viewed as reactionary in principle and ineffective in practice. Indeed Miliband himself would probably admit that too much blind faith was put in market forces, which went terribly wrong in the 2008 crash. Aside from his party’s track record that his Shadow-Chancellor Ed Balls, again, rather unfortunately, oversaw in his years as an adviser to the Treasury, there has been no real compelling economic alternative put forward.
‘Jobs and growth’ has been bandied about as an alternative to austerity, but if Miliband is serious about ‘spending for growth’ rather than the current stagnation, he needs to make explicitly clear how his spending might actually work, as opposed to the coalition’s ‘bad’ spending which he attacks. If he fails to make this distinction, he is vulnerable to the public’s assumption that all spending – by very definition – is ‘bad’ and thus retrospectively seen as a cause of the 2008 economic collapse. So far it seems Labour has been unable to construct, or articulate a persuasive economic alternative. Are Labour holding back a genuine plan until closer to the election, and thus playing politics with people’s living standards? Or do they have little else to offer except an indictment of the current government’s failings?
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the coalition failing on the economy is not going to be enough to get Miliband into Downing Street with a majority. Backbench Labour MPs feel they should be doing far better in opinion polls considering just how badly the Coalition are doing, one Labour MP joking, “it took us ten years to be this bad at government”. Whether the electorate perceive Labour to be truly trustworthy in an economic sense remains to be seen. ‘Austerity-light’ or a confused ‘jobs and growth’ banner, it seems, are not going to be enough. However, those of us on the Left can take heart from the fact that Miliband has a theme to build around: One Nation – where everyone is said to have a stake in society. Something has to give: either there has to be a change of economic policy from the coalition, or Labour need to advance a compelling alternative. If not, it’s going to be a grim war of attrition until the next general election.