Labour lose no opportunity to line up with every grievance for which they think they can blame the Coalition government. The implication is that, if you left it to them, it would all be quite different. To some extent this is the standard currency of opposition. But as we get closer to an election, and parties have to bring their own proposals into focus, Labour are still trying to be all things to all people – and it won’t wash much more.
Just recently we had strike action over public sector pay negotiations which halted the bin collection in Cambridge. Labour’s Cllr Peter Roberts, who is in charge of the service, was admittedly in a difficult place over the botched management job he made of catching up after the strike, leaving bins a week overdue for emptying (yes, for a just one-day strike!) But look at his riposte:
It is never nice for people to have to suffer from a dispute between the coalition Government and workers who aren’t paid a fair wage for what they do.
This sounded more like a call to action to employees than part of an apology to the public, so I asked his colleague, the Labour Finance Chief, Cllr George Owers, what in fact the city’s new Labour administration was planning to do about this, as it is they who are the local government employer, not the government. It certainly sounds like they might at least be lobbying the Labour leadership of the national pay negotiations.
Actually not yet, appeared to be the answer. But when he got round to it, he would be telling the national negotiators that in his view “workers deserved a fair increase”. Well that’s alright then! But, oh wait: “however,” he continued, “that will be impossible until the government stops slashing funding for local authorities”. Clearly hitting a comfortable theme, lots of jibes then followed about a “financial situation which is the result of the cuts voted through by [the Liberal Democrats]” and (in case we missed that) “we must not forget where the blame for the low pay increases for public sector staff lies – with this government”.
So, there we have it. The implication is that austerity and the public sector pay discipline that goes with it, are uniquely the choice of the Coalition government. Choose a Labour government and it will all be fine!
But we also have the desperate need for Labour to absolve itself of the mess it left the country’s finances in only 4 years ago. They need to find a way of sounding financially responsible. So we get at a Labour policy conference in July, according to the Guardian:
An attempt to commit Labour to abandoning coalition spending plans was heavily defeated on Sunday at the end of a policy conference described as a ‘radical rethink’ of what the party stands for. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, said the vote showed there was widespread support in the party for a manifesto based on ‘big reform not big spending’ and that members endorsed the tough fiscal position adopted by the leadership
And of the same event on the BBC News website:
Ed Miliband said there will be no return to tax and spend policies of past Labour governments. Mr Miliband said Labour would offer a ‘binding commitment to balance the books’.
And of course both of them are here speaking something of a truism that is impacting all western economies. Our coalition government has distinguished itself mainly by getting on with the job of deficit reduction, involving undeniably painful but necessary decisions.
We only need to look at France to see the alternative. A socialist government got elected telling people it could resist austerity: I guess very much to the taste of Labour councillors in Cambridge. But what has been the result? France is now the sickest of the major European economies: growth and business confidence elude it and unemployment is 70% higher than in Britain and rising. They are now struggling to change course.
So who should we believe in Labour about their intentions? Which line is the truth and which a cynical deception? If the new Miliband/Balls position is what they really stand for, then Owers and co can’t expect to be taken very seriously if they continue to waste the city council’s time attacking and hiding behind the coalition’s economic programme: it sounds to be very similar to their own plans! But if we are hearing the authentic voice of Labour from their Cambridge councillors, then we need to hear less posturing from Miliband/Balls and more of how they could sustain the growth achieved by the coalition without continued deficit reduction.
I think we can see a party that is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. A shambolic and dishonest way to approach a general election. So which is it to be?