By Toby Flux
According to an ICM poll for The Guardian published earlier this week, Labour lags the Conservatives as the party with the best economic team by a whopping sixteen points. The coordinated attack on David “Mr 10%” Cameron is a welcome fightback, but is doomed to fail unless it encompasses a broader explanation about Labour’s action faced with the unprecedented global recession.
To understand why it’s essential that we explain the past before we can be heard about the future, let’s take a quick look at the perception of both the commentariat and the general public to the “Mr 10%” campaign: universally rubbished and leaving the impression with non-aligned voters that Labour is the least honest of all the main parties on their future tax and spending plans. That’s not good!
Note the use of the word “honest”? Dishonesty is a repeated charge leveled at Labour, not only at Prime Minister’s Questions but from all Tory quarters, and has been for some time now. It’s a clever tactic – the public don’t trust politicians at the best of times, and with the expenses scandal even less so today – but it’s a process which started in earnest when clear blue water emerged on the economy.
Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling’s handling of the credit crunch and the threat of a 1930′s style depression is one of the things I most admire about this government. It took guts to do what we’ve done, but I wish we’d have explained it more clearly at the time. Some of us tried but there was no follow up, and instead the Tories were able to push their message that Britain can’t afford the levels of borrowing required to reflate the economy.
To be fair, Gordon Brown led the charge too when he told Cameron at PMQs:
“I have listened on many occasions to the Leader of the Opposition and to the shadow Chancellor, and I have come to the conclusion that they do not understand what is happening in the world economy. I do not think that the Leader of the Opposition realises that while last year, and in the last few months, the problem has been inflation – we have had inflation combined with a credit crunch – in the next year, the problem is deflation and the problem – [Interruption.] Inflation close to zero.”
The problem is that the Leader of the Opposition wasn’t the only person who didn’t understand what was happening in the world economy; nor did the vast majority of voters. That’s not really surprising given that, as Nobel Economist Paul Krugman argues in his paper “Can deflation be prevented?“, governments faced with deflation should practice the opposite of what is conventional economic policy (something he doubted finance ministers would be willing to do, but in fact has been followed by many governments around the world):
“In short, if you really believe that deflation is now a global threat, you should also believe that only policies that lie outside the realm of what is conventionally regarded as responsible will contain that threat. And because unconventional thinking is not what one expects (or, in normal times, wants) from finance ministers and central bankers, there is now a real risk that deflation will indeed become a global scourge.”
Darling was ridiculed for predicting the worst economic times in 60 years, but was quickly proved to be correct. He was also correct to say in the same interview:
“We really have to make our minds up; are we ready to try and persuade this country to support us for another term? Because the next 12 months are critical. It’s still there to play for. But we’ve got a hell of a lot to do. We patently have not been able to get across what we are for, and what we are about.”
I’ve been waiting for that persuasion to be made in terms which can be easily understood, but the best we’ve come up with so far is the line “you’ve got to grow your way out of recession not cut your way out”. That’s all well and good, but it’s too little too late.
I want to see a viral video or broadcast using a blue balloon and a red balloon to show what we’ve done and what the effects of what the Tories would have done to the economy. I want to hear the farting noises when the blue balloon deflates as a voice over explains “if Mr 10% were in charge, 500,000 more people would be unemployed than with Labour”. (Yes it’s crass and a bit of a joke, but losing public support for economic competence is no joke.)
I want to see briefings to all party members explaining the facts and giving examples of what else would be worse if Osborne and not Darling were in Number 11.
I want the Number 10 press office and the Labour Party press office produce factual rapid response press releases to counter the lies from the Tories, so claims that Brown is lying when he says “Britain is well placed to come out of recession early”, or that the Pound will soon have parity with the Euro, or even that Britain would have to go cap in hand to the IMF (all three have already been made by Tory commentators), can be swiftly and widely rubbished.
In short, I want both more and better spin. Because without it, we’re going to lose what I want more than anything: a fourth term in government.