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Friday, April 01, 2011

The need for an opposition alternative

The editorial in this morning's Guardian will make difficult reading for the Labour leadership. For, whilst the Government makes difficult and unpopular decisions to get the economy back on track, the opposition appear to be floundering. Indeed, as the paper puts it, Ed Miliband's personal support is, in some polls, worse than Iain Duncan Smith's at the same point in his leadership.

Labour's problem is that they don't have an alternative:

Last week's TUC march will in political terms be remembered less for the appalling violence of a minority, or the policing tactics, but for what it said about Labour's uncertain message on cuts. As we wrote on Monday, it was right to join the march for the alternative – but, nearly a week on, it is all the more essential to be able to answer questions about what that alternative is. So it was disappointing yesterday that both at the launch of Labour's local election campaign and on the Radio 4 Today programme, Ed Miliband lacked an authoritative case, while his sometimes defensive manner seemed to betray uncertainty. Opposition is a tough game, hardest of all in the early years, when the government can still throw its predecessor's legacy in its face. Labour has a good case to make against economic policy that is a matter of political choice rather than financial necessity. But it is not yet underpinned by a clear and persuasive description of why, and of how it could be different.

What is worse is that up until now they have appeared to be in denial, both of their own record and of the grave consequences of that for the Country. At least Ed Balls is now starting to acknowledge past mistakes, though in doing so he is helping the Government justify their own actions:

In an interview in this week's New Statesman, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, goes a long way to accepting that there was, at least in hindsight, a structural deficit before 2008. He admits that he was wrong about light-touch City regulation; he accepts that, with employment more buoyant than he had anticipated, his anxiety about Alistair Darling's cuts in 2009 (and, more opaquely, his no-cuts leadership election position last year) were wrong. And he is clear that those who think clamping down hard on tax avoidance is a sufficient alternative to making cuts are misguided. This is an interview that jettisons some difficult baggage.

As the paper says, and as the Liberal Democrats know all too well, being the receptacle of a protest vote is entirely different to being viewed as an alternative Government:

But at the moment, in campaigning terms, it remains the stuff of the small print. The message at the local election launch yesterday, like the message at last Saturday's march, is all about solidarity, being the voters' voice "in tough times". There are too many people who will treat this as political sleight of hand – people who remember all too vividly who was in power when the meltdown happened, people who want their political leaders to be straight with them. Their views might not shape the way they vote on 5 May, but voting Labour to protest at cuts forced on their local council by the coalition is not the same as being prepared to vote Labour at the next election.
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