Root & branch? Balls’ mistake in letting the Tories choose the battleground

History is replete with examples, from Alexander through Julius Caesar to Agincourt and beyond, of battles won by smaller armies over larger ones. The general consensus of military historians is that the decisive factor in such instances is that the master stroke of the general commanding the smaller army was in choosing the battleground to suit his strengths – or, depending on which way you look at it, the catastrophic error of the larger army’s commander in allowing him to.

Last Thursday’s Guardian carried an article on the ‘root and branch’ review of spending being promised by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. Probably motivated jointly by a desire to seem serious, sober and convincing to the electorate about the economy and a desire to ‘placate the markets’ and win favour from them for the future.

Understandable, I guess. And completely the wrong tactic.

By trying to match the Tories in readiness to ‘get tough’, ‘make difficult decisions’, ‘think the unthinkable’, or however you want to phrase it, Ed is making two fundamental errors. First he’s letting the Tories choose the battleground; second, he’s granting the premise of their argument and actions: that there is overspending and that there is a ‘structural deficit’ that needs to be corrected in the first place.

The Tory battleground

By choosing to try to meet the Tories and neutralise them on the spending issue, the best that Labour can hope for is to be considered as ‘Tory lite’. While this might win some brownie points with the very narrow sector of our society that consists of ‘business leaders’ (the kind of people represented by the CBI), and with some elements of the right-wing press. Oh, and ‘the markets’ – but we’ll come to them presently.

This can’t be a winning strategy because:

– Business leaders do hold a key to economic recovery and electoral strength, but it’s not one that will be reached by ‘reassuring’ them that a Labour government will be just as tough on spending as the current excuse for a government. The key to economic recovery is demand – and business leaders can only contribute to demand by paying a living wage and being courageous in employing people. But they’ll only do that if they see that they have a government that will a) demand it of them and b) lead the way by well-targeted spending to increase demand so that they can be confident in investing, employing and spending themselves.

– The right-wing press is never going to give whole-hearted backing to the Labour party and will only use the implicit admission of previous recklessness as a weapon to attack Labour in public opinion. These newspapers are owned by people who are committed to the right-wing’s small-state, low-tax ideology and any improvements in the deficit or the economy are always going to be secondary to those ultimate aims.

– The British people – and this is the big one – are massively disillusioned with a politics that seems to present them only with two sides of the same neoliberal coin. The Labour party that can win an outright majority at the next election will not be one that simply offers a slightly ‘nicer’ version of the Tories, with much the same spending cuts and mindset.

For Labour to motivate people who vote to swing strongly toward them, and to motivate those who didn’t vote in the last election to get out and vote Labour at the next one, will be a Labour party that offers a genuinely different way of seeing the world – of perceiving the UK and international economy and the solutions to economic problems. More on this in the next section.

– Placating the markets is a complete waste of time. Firstly because the opinion of the markets changes more often than the direction of the wind – the markets are as unstable as a nervous sheep, and keeping them onside is a vain and pointless hope. The real measures necessary to create a stable economy capable of steady and solid growth will involve a divorce of national economies from the instability of markets, and turning that into reality will be a battle that the markets will resist no matter what, so there’s no point in courting their favour now.

The premise

The Tories failed to get themselves elected in the last general election. But what success they did have came largely from them accusing Labour of presiding over an economic mess – and no opportunity to repeat the ‘inherited mess’ mantra has been missed ever since.

But the inherited mess is a myth. By volunteering that Labour will conduct this ‘root and branch’ spending review, Balls is granting credibility to the myth instead of exposing it as the lie it is. First, Labour managed the deficit well until the events of 2007/8 forced the desperate measures of bank bailouts etc – measures which David Cameron supported. Secondly, the kind of measures which the Tories are trying to impose will ensure that any ‘recovery’ only benefits themselves and their backers – and in fact will prevent any real recovery while ensuring that they and their backers still continue to get richer.

The government and its media pals are trying hard to keep this realisation from percolating through to the public consciousness. But people still sense in their gut that this is what’s happening – and so they’re heart-sick of the posturing and hypocrisy they see in the government’s words and actions (the booing of George Osborne by 80,000 people at the Paralympics was a demonstration of this.

If Labour wants to win the battle for the hearts, minds and votes of the British people, they will not succeed in doing so by posing as ‘Tory lite’ and saying that they’ll cut just like the Tories only a bit smarter.

Winning people’s hearts, minds and votes requires presenting a vision – one that gives a truer, better explanation of the current situation as well as a better, clearer, more inspiring and much more radical solution. By effectively agreeing with the Tory narrative and then trying to fight them on the battleground they’ve chosen, Ed Balls has made a serious strategic and tactical mistake.

Serious, but not fatal. There’s still time to recast the setting and reframe the argument onto terms that not only better suit Labour’s intrinsic strengths, but are also a truer reflection of reality and more appealing to the hearts and minds of austerity-sickened voters. In short, to withdraw from a no-win battleground and engage with people and the opposition on the right terrain.

I hope Ed and Ed will see this and act in time!


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