Backing austerity is the policy equivalent of shooting at where the clay pigeon is, rather than where it will be.

By Ian Dunt

In most respects Ed Miliband is unlucky. He does not photograph well, he has an odd, occasionally unconvincing manner, he leads a divided and rebellious party and faces an almost uniformly hostile media. His only real assets are his ideas. When he has the stomach to stick to them, they are popular and uncannily in tune with the murky political reality of austerity Britain.

On phone-hacking he expressed moral and political bravery by coming out against Murdoch before it was the safe thing to do. His conference speech was damned as 'left-wing', but within months David Cameron was echoing its rhetoric.

It is a shame, then, that he fumbles the ball on the big one. The policy shift Labour implemented since the new year – vigorously attacked by union leaders and party backbenchers this morning – eliminates his advantage by forsaking his ability to express distinct ideas from the government. It reduces opposition to management style

On the surface, it appears sensible. After all, acceptance of austerity is in line with public opinion. But dig deeper, and it is the policy equivalent of shooting at where the clay pigeon is, rather than where it will be.

The public is currently convinced excess Labour spending caused the deficit. It has accepted the argument for deficit reduction and the need to reduce public spending. While Labour leads in general, it consistently fails on economic trust. The current policy shift is an attempt to rectify that.

The polls indeed show the public trusts the Tories over Labour on the economy, but public attitudes to economics are currently fickle, hard to assess and prone to sudden movement. In general, the political compass is firmly to the left of where it was before the financial crisis in 2008. Voters know the financial sector is getting away with high salaries and they have some sense of its responsibility in causing the crisis. They do not accept current levels of inequality and wants a more just social and economic consensus. It would not take much for public opinion to shift against public contributions to deficit reduction and a demand for the financial sector to pay its way.

At the moment this has not translated into opposition to spending cuts. This is partly because the comparison of the nation's bank account to that of the household is peculiarly persuasive, despite being economically illiterate. It is also due to a sustained and expertly handled PR campaign from the Tories and the Lib Dems blaming everything on Labour spending and nothing on the financial sector.

Labour's new year's strategy is to blink first. The policy shift accepts the Conservative terms of the debate. This is not altogether different to when Gordon Brown was finally forced to use the word 'cuts' before the election. Forever after, he could not fight the election on his territory. In a debate on cuts, the Tories will always win.

As an effort to get the media onside, it will not succeed. Sure, the press would have continued to howl 'left-wing' at everything Miliband says. That has had little effect on their readers, of which there are fewer every day. While the press might welcome Miliband accepting the need for cuts, they're unlikely to back him over Cameron. The most damaging element of press coverage is anyway not on lefty politics but on more superficial coverage of his charisma and looks. The sense that he is not 'prime-ministerial', which lies at the heart of most jokey tabloid coverage of him, is far more problematic than the 'red Ed' tag. He's attacking the wrong target.

Miliband will spend the next few months contorting himself into a series of impossible positions, both in media interviews and the Commons. You can see it now: Do you oppose this cut? 'Yes.' Will you undo it in power? 'No.' Miliband's position is perfectly reasonable. You can oppose something while recognising the irresponsibility of reversing it years later. But there is a chasm in politics between logic and mantra. While Miliband's position is logical it is easy to mock and in clear, humorous slogans. That mockery will have more resonance and air time than Miliband's nuanced response. It will give the impression that he is slippery.

Miliband had already started to articulate a coherent and populist left-wing voice. His call for ethics at the top and bottom of society gave him the language to attack executive pay and 'predator' firms on one hand while criticising life-out-of-work benefits culture on the other. That is an extremely potent political lexicon.

By accepting the need for the public sector to pay for the deficit, Miliband breaks the key aspect of the left-wing critique of austerity. He accepts that the poor must pay for the rich's mistakes. A left-wing assessment must express that the financial sector caused the financial crisis, that the problem of the deficit is overwhelmingly due to the state's need to then bail it out, and that we are now effectively paying back the financial sector and the banks for the privilege of having bailed them out in the first place. Without the judgement to brand this morally and economically intolerable, there can be no left wing opposition.

Public sector voters are more likely to stay at home on election day. Alienated Lib Dem voters have no new home to welcome them. The return of internecine fighting between union and Labour leadership breaks one of the central goals Miliband was trying to achieve for the party. And he has alienated his strongest allies while failing to placate his enemies. It leaves him even more isolated than he was before. It forsakes a coherent economic policy for a short-termist political strategy which will anyway fail. It is cacophony of error, made to satisfy the siren voices of austerity. 

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