Sunday 13 October 2013

Labour's search for a winning formula

After the party conferences, political commentators in Britain have taken stock and assessed the fortunes of the political parties. Whilst most agree that all three main parties have had a good conference season (the UKIP conference quickly degenerated into a clown’s show), there has been a major shift in the tone of the public debate. And it is Labour that is at the heart of this shift. 

Labour’s leader Ed Miliband promised to ‘freeze energy bills’ for everyone for 20 months if Labour would come to power. What looks like a policy straight from the Communist Manifesto at first, indicates some major movement in the Labour Party itself, and not of the expected kind. 

At first glance, this may have heralded a move to the loony left, as some Conservatives would have it. I do believe a freeze in energy bills is non-sensical at best, but interestingly, it may mean much more for internal Labour party politics. What many observers overlook is that this may be Miliband’s desperate attempt to free himself from the suffocating embrace of Ed Ball’s formula. The shadow chancellor has banked Labour’s political future on one scenario, the failure of austerity (in fact, the difference between Labour’s and the Coalitions budget plans amounts to less than .6 percent). Balls thought that as the economic recovery was nowhere in sight by the next election, voters would punish the Coalition government for budget cuts. 

This was always a highly risky strategy. In effect, it meant that Labour had few policies and chanced everything on a particular turn of events. If things went differently, it was left without convincing arguments. And this is exactly what appears to come true. The IMF has upgraded its growth forecast for Britain to 1.4% this year which means that Britain is now the fastest growing economy of the G7. 

Cue Ed Miliband who has now (sensibly) tried to shift the main emphasis of Labour’s policies from resistance to austerity to the ‘cost of living’. This resonates with voters much more than the slightly arcane discussions about austerity and is something that might still continue well into the next parliament. 

So, in the end, Miliband’s change of topic is a smart move. It opens up new territory for Labour strategies, and releases its leader from the deadly embrace of a fatal misjudgment by his shadow chancellor. Soon, Miliband may be strong enough to put his new authority to the test and send Balls packing. Until he does so, the Labour party is hamstrung by Balls’ failed economic analysis and his history as Gordon Brown’s underling. To win elections, Miliband knows he has to change this. 

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