The Tories have a plan to beat Labour at the election even if the economic situation remains dire. They will tell the voters - “don’t blame us - it is Labour’s fault”. This could be highly effective. Polls show that more people still blame the last Labour government for the state of the economy than blame the Coalition. Unless Labour takes action urgently to change public perception, this issue is a ticking time-bomb which could explode and cause serious damage in 2015.
The Tories are likely to fight a far more disciplined and ruthless campaign in 2015 than they did in 2010. They have hired Lynton Crosby as their election supremo. He is known as the “Australian Karl Rove” – a reference to the “evil genius” who used highly aggressive tactics to secure two victories for George W Bush. Crosby will have noted how Barack Obama used the economic legacy of the Bush regime against Bush’s fellow Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama’s pitch was – "Why hand the keys back to the guys who drove the car into the ditch?" It is easy to imagine Tory posters grouping Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls above that question.
Obama may have been right about the blameworthiness of the Republicans. However, Labour has a good argument that the economic crisis in the UK was not principally its fault but was the result of an international banking crisis with its roots in the US.
The central Tory charge is that Labour over-spending is to blame for the country’s economic woes. The ONS graph below illustrates very clearly that the facts do not support this. Labour did not spend excessively. Immediately before the banking crisis struck in 2007/8, the UK’s debt was significantly lower as a percentage of GDP than it had been when Labour came to power in 1997. It was only after the crisis and as a result of the ensuing economic mayhem that debt increased very dramatically. Furthermore, it is fair to note that David Cameron and George Osborne were pledging to match the level of Labour’s spending right up until the banking crisis.
ONS graph in next post following.
It is right that Labour cannot escape all responsibility for the fact that the banking crisis itself occurred. The Labour leadership has already admitted fault and apologised for failing to regulate the banks tightly enough. However, here too, Cameron and Osborne’s attack is undermined by their own actions - they were calling for even lighter touch regulation at the time.
Labour can never hope to comprehensively win this argument. However, they can hope to neutralise it so that the next election is fought on the record of the Tories post-2010 rather than of Labour pre-2010.
Labour needs to start the task of persuasion urgently. After the 2010 election, the Coalition was highly disciplined in constantly reiterating their narrative that it was all Labour’s fault. Labour was deflated, disorganised and distracted by its own leadership campaign. The Coalition’s version of history is now well embedded in the mind of the electorate. If Labour waits until the next election to challenge it, they will find it is far too late.
It will not be at all easy to tackle this issue. It is rarely enough in politics to be right or even to have the best arguments. Labour will need to grab media and public attention for what looks like a stale issue. They also need someone delivering the message who has credibility with crucial swing voters. It seems unlikely that any of the Shadow Cabinet could do this particular job.
If Ed Miliband were to think outside the box he could consider asking Tony Blair to help.
If asked, Blair might well agree. The issue concerns not only Labour’s electoral prospects but his legacy too. It is important to him. He wrote about it recently in the New Statesman - “Labour should be very robust in knocking down the notion that it “created” the crisis.” He was clear that the cause of the crisis was the “financial tsunami that occurred globally, starting...in the US.”
Asking Blair’s help would have an element of risk for Miliband who has been at pains to distance his party from Blair and New Labour. Blair himself is deeply unpopular in sections of the Labour Party.
However, Blair can undoubtedly grab attention and he is has significant credibility with many of the target swing voters. He is, for example, considerably more popular than any other former or current prime minister (Major, Brown or Cameron). He might be the only person who could do this crucial job. If so, Miliband should ask him.