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Columnists

Division of Labour

Paul Vallely

VallelyO ne night a few weeks back I stood outside a London pub with a group of friends. 'Who should I vote for in the Labour leadership ballot?' one asked. The assembled company, all broadly Christian socialist types, gave the overwhelming response: None of the Above. It was not a helpful reaction, of course, since a decision had to be made.  But it gave some indication of the lack of enthusiasm for the contest, and a general gloom at the fact that a party the size of Labour could not throw up a better quality of candidates than those on offer. You'll have to go for the lesser of weevils, one wag suggested. Ah, but which was that?

'You can't vote for someone with a lisp,' someone suggested. Apparently Ed Balls has one, though I'd never noticed. 'Well the Miliband brothers both have a-speak-your-weight machine android quality about them,' said someone else. Andy Burnham was adjudged a light-weight who had never said anything profound, revealing, interesting or even witty. Diane Abbott was a destructive loudmouth. As you can see the level of analysis was pretty profound.

The obvious jumping-off point was to ask which of them would make the most credible prime minister-in-waiting. On that David Miliband scored highest in our bar-room focus group by virtue of his past positions, his high support among MPs and, said those who had encountered him personally, his intellectual horsepower. But had he the killer instinct? He had had several chances to move against Gordon Brown and had bottled them all. And he would be Blair II; would that put enough clear water between him and David Cameron?

Ed Miliband had made better noises about detaching our foreign policy from the coat-tails of Washington, in a way his big brother had failed to do when he was Foreign Secretary. And as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change he had shown more urgency about pushing international action on global warming than most politicians. But was there a danger of him setting out too leftist a stall, in pursuit of the union vote, and alienating the middle ground of British voters?

And should Labour be looking for a prime ministerial figure now anyway? Perhaps what it needs more just now is the most effective leader of the opposition it can muster, which is not necessarily the same thing. Ed Balls has demonstrated the best credentials in this. He has been robust in the idea that Labour needs to offer a credible alternative to a Coalition government that presumes its agenda of cuts to be self-evidently the right one. David Miliband is following the pace set by Alistair Darling's policy on this, which is not so speedy as George Osborne's but which Balls adjudges too severe to be credible or sustainable. Ed Miliband has been unhelpfully vague on the subject. But Balls has denounced the Coalition cuts strategy as 'dangerous and risky'.

There was no significant structural deficit in the mid-part of this decade, he has pointed out. The UK had lower debts than France, Germany, US and Japan. The cause of the deficit was not Labour mismanagement, as the Tories continually assert, but a global financial crisis in which taxpayers had to bail out the banks to prevent total meltdown. Of course that deficit now has to be paid off. But to do that more rapidly than any deficit has been cut since the Second World War risks slowing the fragile recovery and perhaps stalling the economy completely and plunging us into a double-dip recession.

'There is no precedent in British economic history to say cutting spending will make things better,' he said. 'We ought to be investing ... in building houses, in building schools, in creating jobs now to get the economy moving again.' He has set out a £250m plan to create 200,000 jobs and work placements for the unemployed to ensure that anyone without work for more than 18 months would be given a job or placement. He wants government to build 100,000 more affordable homes to be built to tackle the housing shortage and create hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs.

That is a plausible alternative to Osborne's ruthless slash-and-burn policy. Balls would have been my preferred candidate had he not, when he was education secretary, launched an attack on faith schools without getting his facts straight. It was a shameless attempt to pander to the Left, whose prejudices mistakenly assume that faith schools are privileged strongholds of the middle-class. (They obviously haven't been to the inner city Catholic schools that I have.) Balls' opportunistic tactics on this cast doubt on his integrity for me.

But there is something else. Of course it is extremely early days yet but my hunch is that David Cameron - who has come across as a far more substantial and intuitively smart prime minister than many expected - will swat his Lib Dem partners aside at the next election and win an outright Tory majority. If that happens it will mean Labour is cast into the wilderness for two terms. It might need a far younger leader, of whom most of us have not yet heard, by then.

So a key job for whoever is elected now will be to rethink how Labour translates its old values into a new vehicle suited to those times. Like Neil Kinnock the next Labour leader may never be prime minister, but they could have a vital role in revitalising a party that seems to have run out of both ideas and political will. Ed Miliband might be the creative thinker to do that.

Who then should Labour elect?  That depends on whether they want a potential prime minister, an effective leader of the opposition or a policy visionary with considerable organisational skills. The dilemma is that that none of the individuals on offer will discharge each of those roles with equal efficacy. Just as well, perhaps, that I didn't have a vote.