Saturday, 9 May 2015

Reflections After the Election... The penalty miss

Reflections After the Election... The penalty miss

There was a moment in the election campaign when Ed Milliband had a chance. A penalty awarded to him . True it was at the opposition end against a hostile, angry crowd. For those who remember the 1990 World Cup semi-final , it was his Chris Waddle moment. Unfortunately like Chris under lots of pressure he fluffed it. He ballooned it over the bar. And like England's chances of World Cup glory his and Labour's chances of election glory died . We didn't realise at the time as the opinion polls were still giving Labour a falsely high reading. But it was still probably the decisive moment.

That chance was the BBC Question Time programme on 30th April. He was asked to apologise to the nation for Labour's economic record; for "over-spending" and "over-borrowing", leading to the economic crash . He started to have a go at explaining why Labour had no need to apologise, pointing out that the USA suffered the same fate from a global banking crisis. However he hardly addressed at all the essential question. Did Labour's poor economic management contribute to the severity of the crash and the subsequent huge debt and deficit? Almost as soon as he started to explain it he just gave up. It seemed like he'd admitted defeat; that it was all too complicated to explain to the studio audience and they probably wouldn't believe him if he tried. Well I'm sure many of that studio audience wouldn't have believed him. Certainly not that rather aggressive blonde woman with the frightening eyes (The one posing as an "undecided" even though she was a committed Tory). But there was a much wider audience out there; the millions watching on live TV or replaying extracts later on i-player or social media. He owed it to them to try to explain. Yet instead of doing that he veered off into talking about all the wonderful things Labour had spent the money on; new schools and hospitals, etc. He was just playing into his opponents' hands. Ahh! so that's where all the money went! Hence Liam Byrne's infamous  note and hence why we weren't strong enough to withstand the banking crisis. It looked like he just didn't have an answer and that he'd been "found out".

The sad truth though is that he did have an answer, a good answer. No it wouldn't have been easy to convey to the audience, but he owed it to them and the whole country to give it a proper try. ("At least I tired" says Ed's Newzoid's puppet. Well on this one Ed you didn't try hard enough). Labour can whine at the unfairness of the right wing press stacked against them. But a live BBC programme watched by millions has far more reach than a fatuous headline in the Sun or Mail.

What he could and should have said is something like  this. Yes Labour did increase borrowing and spending over its 13 years, but moderately and well within our means for the growing successful economy that they'd delivered before the global crash. (Nearly 10 years of record growth). As a % of GDP their borrowing before the crash was lower than the debt they'd inherited from the previous 18 years of Tory government. Our borrowing was almost exactly the same as Germany's and little different to the USA's (both of whom had right leaning governments). In fact in 4 out of 10 years before the crash Labour ran a budget surplus (the Tories did so in only 2 out of 18 years) and their average budget deficit was less than 2% of GDP while the Tories' had been over 5%. The Tories in opposition pre-crash had also effectively agreed to match pound for pound Labour's spending/borrowing commitments. They might have offered more tax cuts and spent less in certain areas, but they were not committed to borrowing any less . This suggests either of  two things. That as judged at the time Labour were following an economically sound approach. The alternative is that the clever Tories knew it was a recklessly dangerous approach but they were going to keep quiet about it, because it was their cunning plan to let Labour crash the economy so they could get back in! Even I do not think Cameron & Osborne are that devious and they are certainly not that smart!

The massively increased debt and deficit which Labour left was not caused by Labour spending too much. It was caused by having to bail out the banks when they crashed due to their own economic mismanagement. This effected Britain more than most other countries because we had a particularly large and (up to then) successful financial services sector, (something which both Labour and the previous Tory governments were very proud about.)

Yes Labour did make some economic mistakes but they were only the same ones that virtually all western governments made and which the Tories certainly would have made. Whilst their own economic management was basically sound, the world's banks' was not. They had risked too much in dodgy speculative assets like sub-prime mortgages. When this was was recognised it was this that led to the banking crash, credit crisis and following economic recession, not just in Britain but throughout the western world. So why didn't they act to restrain the banks before it got to that stage? Well the perceived wisdom (foolishness) had been to let the banks get on with it; let the market take care rather than regulate them. In fact the Tories in early 2008 were arguing that the banks were still regulated too much! All western governments had been seduced by that free market idealism; just let them get on with it, after all we're making so much money in taxes from the financial services industry.

The economic crisis that followed the banking crisis was not like previous economic slumps that come round every 10 years or so. It was an almost unprecedented global economic disaster in terms of it scale. Of course if you'd known in the previous years that we were going to be hit by such a ferocious tsunami you'd have taken action to protect yourself. Like the Pharaoh in the story of Joseph, warned in a dream about a severe 7 year famine following 7 years of plenty, you'd have stocked up in the good times to prepare for the harsh times. But unfortunately Gordon Brown like other western leaders never got the dream and presumably neither did David Cameron (or as leader of her majesty's opposition he would have felt duty bound to share this divine foreknowledge). To call it "Labour's economic crisis" is a bit like London having been hit out of the blue by a devastating meteor and then talking about "Labour's meteor".

Sadly, Ed explained very little of this to the nation, leaving many with the impression that since he had no proper answers to the allegations of economic incompetence the Tories were probably right. They couldn't be trusted with the economy.

It was in that context that the SNP card seems to have played so strongly. If you'd had doubts about whether these crash-causing "borrow and spend" socialists were safe to run the economy, how much bigger did those doubts become when you recognised they could probably only be in power with an even more extreme version of the same pulling their strings?  A version that actually wanted to smash up and destroy the United Kingdom!

Without any adequate explanation of  Labour's economic record, frankly I cannot blame  the 2 million more people who chose to vote Tory at the last minute. They did not do so because they thought the bedroom tax and the creation of 1 million foodbank users was a great thing (more of the same please!). They did not do so because they thought forcing housing charities to sell off affordable housing at a big discount was a fantastic idea or that they loved the extension of the free schools policy (resulting in lots of schools in areas where they're not needed performing worse than local authority schools).They voted Tory mostly despite these things.  Neither did they do so because they thought Labour was too "left wing" and challenged too many "vested interests". Some of their more progressive policies were actually their most popular, eg limiting private sector stakes in the NHS, moderate rent controls and removing "non dom" tax status. No, the key reason why the previous "don't knows" and "undecided" flocked to the Tories at the last minute was they felt safer there. Safer, because they were genuinely worried about the alternative. They were worried about what damage to the economy and the country might be done by a Labour government who seemed not to have owned up to their part in the economic crash, propped up by an even more extreme group of economic incompetents, who actually wanted to break up the country.

On 30th April Ed Milliband left the Question Time platform, tripping and stumbling as he did so. This was a neat metaphor for what had just happened ; he'd tripped and stumbled when he'd had the chance to set the record straight on Labour's economic record, and he fluffed his chance. We'll never know for sure whether if he'd responded better it would have made a difference. Who knows may be the Tories would have scored elsewhere? But there was a real chance and he blew it.

 Sadly, it wasn't just for himself and Labour that he blew it. It was for the whole country and especially the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable. I fear they will be ill-prepared for what an unrestrained conservative government will do, hell-bent on its "roller coaster" ride of spending cuts.

Ed is a nice guy, an intelligent man, but I'm afraid he proved ultimately he was not up to doing a very difficult job. Not the job of Prime Minister, which actually I think he would have been pretty good at, but the job of returning Labour to power after the economic meteor that hit us "on their watch".

 Let's hope that Ed Milliband's replacement as Labour leader does a better job of telling Labour's story, without tripping and stumbling on the stage. Let's hope that just like after Labour's "shock" defeat in 1992 this new "shock" defeat will allow Labour to re-group and pick someone new who can lead them to victory and a better future for the country in 5 years time. Sadly, it will take a lot more than 5 years to repair the damage that I fear is coming over the next 5 years.

A lament for leaders lost

So it's goobye to Ed, Nick and Nige'.
Well you can say at least you tried.
You didn't lose because of your policies
But more because of the fear of the SNP
And people didn't trust the Eds with the economy
After the crash that left us with "no money"
Or at least that's what we'd been taught
Even though it was really the banker's fault.

You've got to do better at spinning the stories
That's why you all lost to the Tories.
It doesn't really matter whether or not it's true
As long as you convince them that will do.
That's why Blair won elections and now Cameron as well
But it'll be Bojo next time Andy give him hell !

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