At least the economy is centre stage as Labour’s conference begins. It has to be.
And finally, after a year of the main parties arguing over the size and scale of the deficit, and the speed with which it should be reduced, the argument appears to be moving to the much bigger issues that now confront us – crisis in the eurozone, stagnation elsewhere, a collapse of confidence in many parts of the world.
Ed Balls is right to point out that the current situation is if anything more dangerous than the global financial crisis of 2007/08. At least back then, when the politicians acted – not least among them Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling – there was an economic response. This time, the politicians keep pulling on the levers, (if not in Angela Merkel’s case as hard as she might), and precious little seems to be happening.
Handling these issues in opposition is very different to dealing with them in government. Both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have spent more of their careers in power than in opposition, and in adapting from one to the other after election defeat sometimes have given the impression that the statements they make carry the same weight as when they were in office. They don’t. Sad but true.
The good news is that it gives them greater scope to be much clearer about an overall strategy. Governments have to set out a strategy – in the coalition’s case all focused on deficit reducation – and then deal with day to day events as they arise. Oppositions can set out the strategy, and keep on setting it out as those events unfold. So getting the strategy right is the most important thing.
The objective over time has to be to persuade the public that Labour can be better trusted to manage the economy. That won’t be easy, because the Tories have successfully if dishonestly run the argument that Labour rather than a global financial crisis were to blame for all our current woes. It is never too late to push back on an argument, and Labour has to do so. Not by saying we got everything right, because we didn’t; but by setting out the facts – rising prosperity for the majority, improved investment in public services, alongside overexposure to poorly regulated financial services.
In other words, we must stop buying wholesale into the lines of attack run against us. I don’t doubt Tessa Jowell and Jim Murphy will have been taken out of context, or had words fed down their throats, but headlines proclaiming that ‘nobody is listening to us’, and ‘we were just a soap opera’ play into the negative assessment of Labour that has to be challenged.
The last government was successful on many many fronts and people need to be reminded of that. But of course where mistakes were made, admit them, and above all show that the Party has learned from them.
Balls is right to be making the issue of economic credibility a cornerstone of his speech today, but right too to be reminding people that the government lacks a real strategy for growth, and setting out an alternative.
The election is some way off, but the more the public hears that Labour understands the need to build its own economic credibility, and then hears the arguments and specific measures aimed at doing so, again and again and again, the better the chances of making the current government a one-term affair.
In Ed Balls’ speech today, and Ed Miliband’s tomorrow, comes the chance to begin that process with some real oomph. By tomorrow night, people need to be saying that the outlines of a new approach to growing the economy are clear. There won’t be a better opportunity than this. They need to seize it.