The inability for consistency amongst the Labour leader contenders
The inconsistency of each Labour leadership contender’s message has been a major theme of the campaign. None of them appears to really know who they are targeting. Consider David Milliband’s aim to remove the charitable status of private schools but then his clear desire to rebrand New Labour only by name, not ethically or ideologically. Then we have Burnham, whose contradictions are clear to see and which I blogged about, as he claims to be the carrier of a new brand of socialism whilst still having very right-wing detrimental ideas around say law and order.
Then there is Ed Milliband, who rightly supports the living wage but then makes it conditional so that any company that agrees will benefit from tax breaks, instead of just making it an uniformed law as the minimum wage is now. Dianne Abbott’s campaign has been rather dire and disappointing, I actually can’t remember the last time she was really in the news – the inability to really carve out a new agenda, instead of focusing on the past and her voting record, has been a real failure for her leadership bid.
What did Ed Balls say then?
Then there is Ed Balls. It is hard to believe that this is the same guy who was talking about reforming one of the pillars of the European Union so as to undermine free movement, at the start of the campaign trail, when considering his comments around the deficit. His remarks around immigration were unbelievably undermining to his campaign, and this was clear to see at the Compass conference where one of the leadership hustings was held.
However, regardless, Balls counter narrative to the current ConDem slash and burn approach is a breath of fresh air. It is exactly what Labour need, and he is the only candidate out of the 5 who has really set out a comprehensive alternative, based on logic and economic competence. Next Left have a good piece addressing Balls’ speech, and make an interesting parallel to the deficit that followed the war:
Compare Britain of 1945 to that of 2009. There can be little doubt which was the age of austerity and which of affluence. One was the era of the ration book; the other of the iPod. After the war, Britain had national debt of over 200 per cent of GDP, compared to 60 per cent today. But that country voted for the vision set out in the Beveridge Report of 1942, created a National Health Service free at the point of need, and pledged ’never again’ to the mass unemployment of the 1930s.
Today, even after inflation, our national output is four and a half times greater than it was then. So the real difference between 1945 and 2009 is not a crisis of affordability. It is a crisis of ambition.It will be necessary to rebalance the public finances, and debate the different priorities about how to do so. But we should remember too that our societies today, overall, remain the richest the world has ever seen.
Balls also makes this point. It is clear to see how the dominant economic doctrine affects the policy of the government. In the 1940s there was Keynesian policy, and social democratic thinking – now, we are dominated by a free market neo liberal approach. This clearly relates to the point made in the above quote, about how it is now a question of ambition and aspiration. We now live in a system where people are encouraged to remain loyal to the market, and that to succeed one has to make it on oneself. The state is constructed as an obstacle to success and ambition. It is clear to see how strongly this ideological disposition resonates with the current administration, with their ideas around the ‘Big Society’ and the public sector cutting (a part of the state) and their ill-advised trust in the private sector.
‘Growth deniers’ is the new has tag that I am sure will come to dominant many a progressive twitter account, in a counter insurgency against the prevalent ‘deficit deniers’ (however, some interesting considerations around the growth approach are referred to below). It is not about denying a deficit, it is about looking at it in a more economically sensible way – and constructing an alternative that wont unnecessary destroy people’s life and support.
We are in a very rich country, our living standards on average are very high – through redistribution and economic fairness, people don’t have to be cast onto the side. A new socialistic leaning approach to the economy, one that doesn’t abolish the markets importance, but seeks to tame and provide a more balanced state market approach, is what is needed. This does not undermine the need for localism either, and those who say it does need to stop seeing lefty thinking in black and white Stalin ways.
Balls’ musings around the economy are immensely important and if Labour is to become a real opposition, it is a much-needed economic policy outlook that Labour need to adopt.
And so what should the Greens learn from this?
Well the Greens, whilst rightly focusing on the tax increases instead of cutting public spending, signed up for the same deficit reduction plan as the Labour government – the following is quoted from the Greens’ manifesto:
Our programme has to be paid for, and we accept that the Government borrowing of 12% of GDP is unsustainable. Like the Government, we would aim to more than halve the deficit by 2013, and the programme of taxation and spending in this manifesto is designed to achieve that.
As Balls has argued very competently, there is no need to cut the deficit this fast and deep. Yes, we should make savings and reduce the deficit, and yes this should be focused upon the importance of taxes – also the Greens differ to Balls in terms of our focus upon sustainability and the needlessness of endlessly promoting growth. This latter is something I am becoming more interested in, and it is something we fail as a party to really carve as a credible alternative to the current focus upon economic growth as an end in itself (something GDP is a perfect example of).
Balls has stolen the initiative when it comes to progressive ways of thinking about the economy and the deficit. However, we have things to add to this – as I have already mentioned, the sustainable aspect is ignored by Balls- and this is something that we should highlight.
However, it is unsustainable to imagine we could cut the deficit by 2013 either, and this is something that needs to be changed, so that a credible progressive counter narrative can be formed. The idea of a zero-growth economy (see here for a good piece on this), whilst being very new to me, is something that we should compile more evidence on and promote it as a credible alternative, as the current capitalist boom/bust model is clearly failing.
Food for thought, anyway.
NB: To see Ed Balls’ speech – click here.