Mel Stride MP is PPS to John Hayes MP, founder of the Deep Blue group of centre-right 2010 Conservative MPs and MP for Central Devon.
Labour’s shifting positions on the economy have not so much resembled a journey, more a spate of forced evacuations. It is as if Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have been marooned on a series of islands; clinging to each argument until the tide turned against it and then being swept off to grasp at the next.
First they said the Government was cutting ‘too far and too fast’; then they said we needed a ‘Plan B’; then, once the economy started to grow, they said it was “the wrong kind of recovery’. With the recovery itself now proving too strong to attack they have alighted on the cost of living as their principal theme. With the tide turning against this argument as well, the two Eds are now looking in distinct need of a lifeboat.
It was Miliband’s Conference speech last year, and the pledge to freeze energy prices, that propelled Labour’s latest economic theme to the forefront of their attack. In that speech, Miliband put forward the core of his case: that in 38 of the 39 months since David Cameron had become Prime Minister. wages had risen more slowly than prices, and that the Government was itself to blame. Falling household incomes was no accident, he argued, but fundamental to the Government’s belief that lower earners had to suffer if Britain is to win the ‘global race’.
The brazen hypocrisy of this thesis appeared at the time not to have entirely blunted its appeal. The fact that there was a natural lag before the impact of Labour’s breath-taking mismanagement of the economy (resulting in the 2008/09 slump) and its feeding through to household incomes – a process from which many were initially cushioned by lower interest rates – did not seem to register as much as it might with the public. Perhaps the appeal of this historic economic argument was never going to gain as much traction as Labour’s line “you are hurting right now and they are in charge”. After all, in a sense, the past is a more difficult place from which to argue than the present.
But time itself is now turning against Labour. What actually matters on the cost of living argument will not be what happened in the past, or even the position today, but what will happen between now and May 2015 – and the expectations of the electorate of what the future might hold under the next Government. Already, Miliband’s argument is beginning to feel passé. Falling petrol prices and other factors have driven consumer price inflation down to 1.7 per cent. According to the British Retail Consortium shop prices actually fell by 1.4 per cent in February and by one per cent in January. In February, food price inflation was 1.1 per cent.
An increased focus by the major supermarkets on lower price (as a response to the strong market gains made by budget retailers) might be expected to help press down still further on many consumer costs. By contrast, private sector pay is rising in real terms – increasing by 1.7 per cent in the three months to January. In some sectors, the outlook for employees is better still; pay in manufacturing rose by 2.6 per cent in the first quarter of this year. And the OBR projects that average pay across the economy will also be increasing in real terms by the end of this Parliament.
Of course, one of the perils of Opposition is that the role is often reactive; as conditions change you have to change your case. The need to adapt to shifting circumstances is a challenge for all politicians, but it is less of a problem if there is at least a logical consistency and a sound basis for your arguments. Labour’s problem is that their championing of living standards is just another island in the stream – another opportunistic spot from which they are likely to be shortly dislodged.
Indeed, faced with the improving situation Labour is already changing its tune. It was notable that at PMQs last week Miliband qualified his remarks, rather than saying living standards are falling he said that they “are falling over this Parliament”; effectively conceding that this is now yet another argument of the past. As with every globally facing economy, the UK will remain vulnerable to a number of externalities (further problems in the Eurozone, a slowdown or banking problems in China, dramatically increased tensions with Russia. etc), but my bet is that the economic news will continue to be good for our country and that, on the vital issue of the economy, the two Ed’s will paddle in vain to find a further island on which to re-group.
When historians look back at Miliband’s leadership they may conclude that one of his greatest errors was his focus on too many tactical arguments that, in some cases, had immediate effect but whose currency soon diminished. As a result, his party is in a very bad place.
In the face of Labour’s disarray we should continue to press home with vigour George Osborne’s and our party’s very significant successes in Government.