Comment: Johnson's empty speech

The Cameron/Osborne orthodoxy is dangerous and extreme. It demands a better response than what Johnson had to offer today.

By Ian Dunt

Politics is all about timing. Stalin wrong-footed Trotsky on the date of Lenin's funeral so he could pose as chief mourner, to spectacular effect. Thatcher's electoral prospects were saved by the Argentinean junta's aggression in the Falklands. José Luis Zapatero won the 2004 Spanish elections after the government's despicable response to the Madrid bombings days earlier. Some things are unexpected. Others can be predicted and manoeuvred into line.

The spending review, which is delivered to parliament and a worried nation on Wednesday, falls squarely in the latter category. Alan Johnson and Ed Miliband had a golden opportunity to set out a fresh stall today, ahead of the spending review on Wednesday. It was his first speech as shadow chancellor, a position he was given for reasons of party unity rather than intellectual predilection. Unfortunately, he fluffed it.

The most damaging part came before the speech even began. There was to be no Q&A. It's been a while since we've seen that. Even keynote speeches by Gordon Brown and David Cameron during the election campaign involved a short Q&A, and that was usually in front of fawning and perplexed party members. Given Johnson's admitted lack of knowledge on economic matters, it looked like Labour wanted him offstage before he could reveal how little grasp he has of the subject. It gave the impression that the speech had been learnt by rote, with the shadow chancellor only half-understanding the words he was saying.

Everyone understands the political reasons Ed Miliband made the choice he made, of course. We've all seen the repercussions of a dominant shadow chancellor establishing an alternate power base in the party. The opposition's new offices link Johnson's room to that of Miliband, suggesting the new leader will taking a hands-on approach with economic policy. Johnson simultaneously brought the Blairite/DMili faction on board, presented a comforting image to centrist voters and neutralised the potential threat from Ed Balls.

But even so, watching Johnson stand there today, I couldn't help but wish it was Balls instead. After a couple of years watching Johnson defend the indefensible, such as ID cards and 42-day pre-charge detention, one feels instant dejection the moment one's eyes lay on him. Ed Balls, while in no way exempt from New Labour's more disgraceful habits, at least has a mastery of the subject to go with his wretched past.

It would be morbid and depressing to consider Johnson as Miliband's first choice. Instead, we must treat the shadow Cabinet secretaries as placeholders until the younger, less experienced shadow junior ministers are ready to take their place. That must be true, or else I'll have to start slitting my wrists early this parliament.

But the real lost opportunity of today's speech lay in the tedium of the message. Again, Johnson stuck to vague premises rather than specified pronouncements.

The basics are acceptable. He wants to maintain employment while public spending is cut. An extra bank levy would help fund major infrastructure projects, keeping people in work and not resting everything on the (dubious) idea that the private sector will pick up all the slack of the public sector job losses. That's sensible and correct. There were also a couple of well-conceived lines. "The government, which claims 'fairness', has put itself in the absurd position of saying that children should play a bigger role in getting the deficit down than the banks," Johnson said at one point, in a sweet piece of rhetoric which you can expect to hear again.

But today's speech lacked that headline measure which would cement Labour's approach in voter's minds. The wisest way to achieve this would have been to demand specific cuts themselves, but of a politically useful sort. Johnson could have suggested that private schools lose their charitable status, a measure which should take anyway place on the basis of reason and ethics rather than deficit reduction, but which we'll all graciously accept regardless of its circumstance. Or perhaps he could have centred his demands on opposition to the cut in corporation tax. Any specified left-wing spending cut would have done marvels for Labour.

Instead, Johnson's ill-defined £7.5 billion tax on banks is merely a continuation of the Tory policy which Labour was itself too cowardly to introduce in government. Not only that, but he was shockingly vague about it. The fact there were no questions afterwards did nothing to alleviate that concern.

The amount of money these measures would bring in is ultimately irrelevant. These are totemic measures, like Blair scrapping Clause 4. It would allow the opposition to set out a deficit reduction stall which satisfies lefties. It would help mollify those within the party who are wary of Miliband's support for certain cuts, especially to welfare. It will give the party an answer to the oft-repeated government attack that it has not put forward any suggestions of its own. It would allow them to battle for the mantra of 'progressive cuts', which the IFS has denied the government. And it would give the impression of a pro-active opposition working out the numbers, rather than a party merely reacting to government announcements.

That is the current status quo. The government makes an announcement, Miliband mulls it over for a few days, then gives the thumbs up or down. Incapacity benefit? Thumbs up. Child benefit? Thumbs down. The opposition needs to get on the front foot with keystone policies that will bring the left with them while abiding by Alistair Darling's 'halve the deficit in four years' mantra.

The timing was perfect. Labour could have created a stick to beat the Tories with on Wednesday. It was a wasted opportunity. When Johnson finished his speech today, it became obvious quite how weird it is to deny the hacks questions. "Thank you," he said. There was silence. No applause. "And farewell." One or two hands clapped. Not a great exit.

The right wing press is unimpressed by anything challenging the Cameron/Osborne orthodoxy. But the left is not being offered what it needs to put forward a credible and holistic counter argument. It appears Labour will still be passive on Wednesday, without a full set of alternative proposals to counter the spending review. One can't help but think that Balls would have conquered this problem.

The government's policy resembles a dangerous form of fiscal extremism. It needs a more comprehensive response than the one we were offered today.

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