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Time for Labour to regain initiative on the politics of the economy amid Osborne’s failures and flailings

Posted on 1 December 2014 | 12:12pm

Alan Johnson is my next interviewee for GQ, out later this week. Yesterday the magazine’s spin doctors (they’re everywhere you know) put out a few selected quotes and some of the papers have focused on Alan saying Ed Miliband had asked him if he fancied a return to the front bench. Answer, no, though he did tell me if Labour win, he would be more tempted by a return to a top flight job.

Alan is one of the nicest guys in politics. I don’t think I can ever recall him without a smile on his face. He is also a team player, and Ed is right to want to have him around. But – this bit sounds familiar – he has carved out a new life for himself, in which politics is important but not all-consuming. He is also honest enough to admit that when he was made shadow chancellor, he felt unsuited to the role, and hated it.

That being said, the part of the extracts I was more interested in was less the notion of a job offer by Ed than what Alan had to say about the politics of the economy, a subject on which I am moderately obsessed, as clearly he is too. We agree that the government has been given credit it does not deserve for a recovery that hasn’t really happened, from a mess they managed to pin on Labour when the factors were way more complicated.

This week, with George Osborne’s autumn statement, the chance to regain the battle on the politics of the economy presents itself once more. It is never too late to get to the right position, and as Alan points out, that is to hammer Osborne and Cameron on the fact they have failed on every big economic pledge they have made, particularly with regard to clearing the deficit in a single term. There is also still time to nail the Big Lie that Labour caused the crash and they have created some kind of economic miracle recovery.

Despite the data presenting a compelling case of their failure, they now expect us to believe the economy has recovered sufficient to cut taxes, put billions into public services and now embark on a massive road building programme.

We know that posh boys tend to think the oiks are all a bit stupid, but do they really think we are all so stupid as to fall for a new set of promises when the first lot have been so comprehensively smashed?

Anyway, here are the extracts from the chat with Alan that GQ put out. The magazine is in shops from Thursday.

AC: Are you as depressed as I am about the state of the political debate?
AJ: I doubt it because that sounds very depressed. I think we can win. I don’t see how David Cameron can win. I can see a hung parliament or a tight win for us. Our historic role has been to tear apart after every defeat. We did it in the Fifties, the Seventies, and only once in 80 years has a government come back after one term. So being in there with a shout is good.

AC: But this is not a good government, the economy is not doing great despite their lies, David Cameron’s pandering to UKIP is an embarrassment – we should be battering them.
AJ: If I feel frustrated about anything it is about not holding George Osborne to account, because his flagship policy was to clear the deficit in one term. He has totally failed. Lost the triple-A rating for the first time, borrowing up not down, debt rising faster than anywhere but
Spain. A bit of growth, but you could have put in a few sacks of potatoes from the Treasury and there would have been some growth. Fraser Nelson keeps pointing all this out, and he is the editor of the Spectator!

AC: So why is it not happening?
AJ: The advice will be you fight 2015 not 2010 and on most things I agree with that. But this big fat lie – that we created the mess and they are creating the recovery – has to be challenged and nailed. Labour didn’t create the recession and Osborne is not creating the recovery. It is quite simple. I said it at a fundraiser in Port Talbot last week. I got the loudest applause defending our economic record and attacking the big lie.

AC: It is one of the reasons I am down about it, not just Europe and immigration and Cameron being crap, but we have conceded this economic mess nonsense.
AJ: It needs a couple of big speeches from Ed – Ed Miliband not Ed Balls – in the run-up, just taking the whole thing apart.

AC: Where are you on in/out Europe referendum?
AJ: Against. That is another reason I admire Ed [Miliband]. Lots of people were pushing him to match the Tories and he stuck to his guns. It gives us a unique place to fight from. I admire
what he did on trade union reform. As Tony said, it was more radical than anything we did. Also, on the economy, he caught the zeitgeist. I have always seen the economy as a
tool of society, even if it feels like the other way around.

AC: What would you have done differently as shadow chancellor?
AJ: I was glad to get out. I took it because I thought, what an extraordinary gesture, that he wants me there. I was not associated with him [Miliband], I’m very much a Blairite, I had not been planning to go on the front bench. But my heart wasn’t in it.

AC: From the start? So if the thing with your wife had not happened, you might have found another way to get out?
AJ: Well, that was the deciding factor. But would I have done any better than what we are doing? I was not up for it. I did it for seven months but I didn’t like the job.

AC: What of the current strategy?
AJ: I thought the Ed Balls Bloomberg speech was right – Osborne was using Greece to undermine confidence and went off into his age of austerity. I would like to see us make this issue of Osborne’s failure a bigger point. They have failed on their own targets. They took growth and delivered recession and act as though it is the other way round.

AC: Why are the rest of the shadow cabinet not more visible?
AJ: They need to get off the leash more.

AC: Will you have a broader role in the election?
AJ: Ed said to me a few months ago, “I suppose you’re not interested in coming back?” I said no, and he said, what about freelancing?” I am happy to go round the country, campaigning, talking to parties.

AC: Have we lost the politics of the economic argument?
AJ: No, because people are not stupid, they don’t feel recovery, they don’t need the IFS [Institute Of Fiscal Studies] to tell them tax revenues are not coming in because so many jobs
are low-paid. And whenever I talk to people, they do not believe we caused the global recession. So it is not lost, but there is a danger of losing it.

AC: But we have had four years and not rebutted this “mess we inherited” thing.
AJ: Ed, two big speeches. Take it apart.

AC: And if we did get a majority, what about the front bench then?
AJ: Disgracefully – and it is disgraceful because I won’t have done the heavy lifting – then I would be more interested. But I am not gagging for it. But I am clear that I cannot write and do a front bench job.

AC: What rising stars do you see in the Labour Party?
AJ: Mainly women. Gloria del Piero has a lot going for her. Liz Kendall is really good, Stella Creasy, Diana Johnson. Also the Eagles [Maria and Angela] don’t get the credit they deserve.

  • tykejim

    You can’t let them get away with the Big Lie(s) for four years and then expect to turn it around in five months. Can you?

  • Ehtch

    Hi Ali. All I have to say is “YEP!” Apart from… The Islington question. Know you live in Hampstead Teeth, or wherever, but how is that “Labour” now Labour? Too many of Labour’s goons are using The Labour Party as a meal ticket, and it is noticed in the shires! Jezzuz Chroist, has any of them shovel shit in their lives, literally? Almost breaking their backs, as like Dennis Skinner did once? Feck me sideways, no wonder UKIP and Nige is farting!

    Anyway, a vid I did this morning, to amuse one. Show it to Grace the Younger, and of course mam Fiona…

  • Generalpoliticalinterest

    I do think Alan comes across very well and if we absolutely had to have a Labour government next time I would prefer that he was in charge. But, if the present government can’t be credited with the revival I don’t see why the previous government can be credited simply by riding the wave in the good years? And not blamed for not keeping a bit left over when it’s needed? This isn’t a pejorative view at all, but I do think one that is slightly tired of one strong view against another when neither seems to work.

  • Mark Wright

    Unfortunately for Labour I believe the vast majority of the electorate do not have any real connection with the nuances of the economic debate. No Labour didn’t create the crash, yes Osborne has spent more in 4 years than Labour did in the previous 13 – but do the majority of the public know this or even really care? I fear not enough.

    Folks tend to measure economic competence with the pound in their pocket. Right now, for people who drive (loads), that pound is stretching much further than it did 2 years ago thanks to the global fall in oil prices (long may it continue). Regardless of whether the government have had a hand in this is almost irrelevant – people are starting to feel better off as a result – just in time for Christmas. Mix in a bit of positive coalition mood music and Labour has an uphill struggle between now and 2015. They are also doing it single-handedly. Usually the govt is outnumbered 2-1 by opposition from Labour and Libs. Not this time. Labour is effectively banging the drum on its own against the other two unified parties of govt.

    I’ll leave others to decide just how solid a backbeat Ed Balls is providing at the moment. When it comes to commanding the economic debate perhaps Labour need to be a bit more Ringo and a lot less Pete Best. Any chance Alan would consider picking up the drumsticks again?

  • Michele

    Very touching footage yesterday of GB’s farewell.

    His wife and little lads clearly absolutely love him to bits.

  • Paul Thompson

    Couldn’t agree more with AC and AJ. Also, why is someone like William Keegan from the Observer never heard on the radio instead of Osborne’s cronies. He is always hammering Osborne on his non-stewardship of the economy and would almost certainly put the records straight on the “mess”.

  • reaguns

    Such a hard one to judge. On the one hand, I simply like Alan Johnson more than any MP of any party, and not only would I and many others vote for him because he is a not a “North London snob” like Emily Thornberry and her like always have been, nor an out of touch liberal metropolitan elite intellectual Oxbridge spad like Ed M, let alone an eton oxbridge toff like Cameron, he would even be able to shoot the ukip fox as Nigel Farage would have trouble looking like the ordinary bloke down the pub in comparison.

    On the other hand, I think he, Alastair, Ed and so many others have got completely the wrong end of the stick. I make a pledge here and now that I will never vote for any labour leader who does not acknowledge Labour’s role in the crash. The “Global Financial Crash” (the very use of that term would prevent me voting for someone) did not cause recessions in Canada, Australia, Switzerland and many other places, nor did it involve bank bailouts or 11%, £155 billion deficits in other places.

    Alastair likes his football analogies so here is one. If I owned a big team, would I allow David Moyes to be the manager? No, and the reason is that David Moyes refuses to accept that he made any mistakes at Manchester United, when quite clearly he did. So therefore he will never learn from them and correct them, and so cannot be trusted to make the same mistakes again.

    Same with Labour.

    • Michele

      Why are you toeing the line drawn by the right wing media about Emily Thornberry’s tweet?
      It had absolutely nothing to do with the white van and the auto-pilot assumption that its owner must by default be a hard-working member of the working class ……. durrrrr.
      It was about the flags, the cheap pseudo nationalism (about some tattered and doubtless mucky nylon cra**ola made somewhere eastwards and not by indigenous craftspeople) the need to brag about one’s nationality even by defiling one’s neighbourhood with fakery).

      Am I surprised at you joining the bandwagon? Nope.

      • reaguns

        Here is what I thought of Emily Thornberry before this incident: I despised her more than any other MP, found her more smarmy, smug and stuck up than any other MP including her rivals Cameron, Clegg, Chris Huhne etc. For all their flaws, which I enjoy pointing out, I would not level those criticisms at Major, Blair, Brown, Ed M, Ed Balls, George Osborne.

        I saw her being torn apart by Andrew Neil a couple of times which was great viewing, the only guy her “I’m an oh-so-clever lawyer doncha know” schtick didn’t work on.

        So yes I started out very willing to see her downfall for whatever reason.

        My view on the incident however was that she was either saying:

        1. “Oh look at these horribly uncouth chavs with their flags and their white vans, not like we get in Islington doncha know, how is our metropolitan liberal elite party meant to win in a seat like this?”


        2. “See what we are dealing with? This guy has 3 England flags out, and despite what politicians will be forced to say, the dogs on the street know that this means he is probably anti-immigration, quite likely even downright racist, a BNP/Ukip voter who we have, to quote Mitt Romney “no chance of persuading.””

        If it was 1, then Ed Miliband was quite right to sack her. If it even appeared like it was no 1, then he was within his rights to sack her.

        If it was 2, then she should have had the guts to say so. As she did not, then we must assume it was 1, and therefore must support Ed Miliband’s decision.

        You do not support your Dear Leader’s decision on this matter?

    • Dave Simon

      Why don’t you get to the heart of the matter and blame the religion of ‘Neo-Liberalism’ for the recession? The Tories remain devotees no matter how much people’s lives get wrecked, and Labour felt it had to get converted because the electorate had been swayed by vociferous, one-dimensional evangelists into belief. And please, when you repeatedly cite Canada, Australia and Switzerland, do mention the USA, Greece, Portugal and Spain to give some modicum of balanced judgement. Cameron recently forecast another global recession and blamed forces beyond the governments control, stupidly forgetting that his pack had deliberately been blaming the last government for the last crisis ever since creeping into office.

      • reaguns

        “Why don’t you get to the heart of the matter and blame the religion of ‘Neo-Liberalism’ for the recession?”

        Because you might as well declare that “Norwegians are murderers” because you have heard that one or two of them are, without bothering to check that the vast majority of them are not. In other words if Neo-Liberalism caused the recession then all other countries who are neo-liberal, including the many who are far more neo-liberal than us, would have got recessions. But the evidence does not support that.

        “And please, when you repeatedly cite Canada, Australia and Switzerland, do mention the USA, Greece, Portugal and Spain to give some modicum of balanced judgement.”

        I remember you, Dave, and you are better than this. This logic is awful. No one denies that the USA, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and a good few others got themselves into an awful mess around the time we did. But people DO deny that Australia, Switzerland, Canada, and a good few others, did not. Hence that is why I need to mention the latter group, the uncommon knowledge which politicians lie about.

        I do, however, agree with you that Cameron and co shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways, ie blame the last recession on Labour, and blame this one on the eurozone, global economic forces beyond his control. Likewise labour cannot ever blame the Tories for a recession ever again, unless it accepts some responsibility for the last one.

        • Dave Simon

          The Norwegian argument is completely spurious. What is jokingly referred to as Neo-Liberalism (for there is nothing ‘neo’ about it) has been the dominant economic orthodoxy for over thirty years and has imbued policy-making at all levels of society. What it amounts to is forgetting what people like John Maynard Keynes were reacting against in the 1930s and wanting to revert to it as if it is something new. It certainly isn’t the ideology of one or two people!
          A global financial crisis does not affect all countries equally – some got lucky!

          • reaguns

            Who has taken over this account from the balanced, sensible, deep thinking person that used to use it?! Neoliberal ideology has not, unfortunately, taken root in every country. It has taken root in many, and it has taken root in some much more than others. It is quite reasonable to say that the most neoliberal countries based on metrics (rather than people assuming based on emotion that US or UK are most neoliberal) emerged very very strongly from the crash, often not even having recessions.

            (As for the UK, well running a 3% deficit during a boom, not only is that not neoliberal, it isn’t even Keynesian, it’s far beyond that!)

            But the best retort you can come up with when I point out that far more neoliberal countries than us rode the storm far more easily than us, is luck?! Really?! What events could not be blamed on luck then?!

    • Michele

      You have an admirer / upper who seems confused ….. posts elsewhere too with lots about Stafford and Andy Burnham (who had been in the Health post for just a few months when the situation there was discovered …..).

      It’s not your fault you’re admired by a bigot though 🙁

      It always seems so easy to just knock what’s gone wrong and not bother daring to offer what iyo (or t’bigot’s) should have been done instead. Are you in agreement with those that rant on and on about GB selling the gold (to pay off what was our highest international debt since WWI …. AND at a time when the price of gold was falling and continued to for several more years?) ….. pls tell. If you disagree so certainly about what GB did allow in the early 90s when the rest of the known universe’s banking sectors were flying high and exploiting UK investment / pension funds……… should he have just let them get on with it? Would that have prevented ’08’s effects on us? Place the blame where it belongs – on dubbya’s inaction in the early days of Lehman.

      • reaguns

        1. He shouldn’t have been running a deficit during a boom. He should have followed Ken Clarke’s plans like he did for the first 3/4 successful years of his chancellorship.

        2. He shouldn’t have decimated our pensions any further than they already were, this one counts as duh. We have too little saved now, and we had too little saved then, so anyone who effected a policy which means we saved less?!

        3. He shouldn’t have had artificially low interest rates, which led to our housing boom, but more importantly:

        4. He shouldn’t have removed housing from the inflation statistics! This was absolutely bonkers! So people thought he was the iron chancellor who had ended inflation – except he hadn’t! He had actually created ginormous inflation, but it was ‘hidden’ in housing. (It wasn’t hidden from real economists.)

        5. Yes of course I think that him selling the gold was ridiculous! Every move that results in less gold in your central bank, for every country, at every time, in history, has proven to be a bad move. It just so happens that even in the pantheon of gold related disasters, his is one of the stupidest in history apart from the abandonment of the gold standard at the beginning of the 70s, which allowed governments to destroy the British and US economies, reduce everyone’s wages and savings, and splurge all the money in short term vote winning strategies.

        Hindsight. Fraid not me old china. I was buying gold when Gordon Brown was selling it, didn’t quite get there at the bottom of the market but not long afterwards. Some people were sad when they bought gold at $1900 per ounce or $1600 per ounce only to see it fall to $1200 over the past couple of years. They forget that Gordon Brown sold it at $250 an ounce! And the economists I follow were buying it, but I only found out by the time it was $500, and as you can imagine I am rather happy with my winnings! The same ones advised me to short the housing market, another killing! And unlike most goldbugs, I sold a load of it at the top of the market (thought I retained the amount that one should always retain in any portfolio to protect against shocks – like labour chancellors) and made a third killing in the stock market. Though I will admit that whilst I was sure of all those moves, I am less sure of what is going to happen now, and have reverted to a plain old diversification and hedging strategy.

  • reaguns

    I was hoping to see a blog from Alastair on the departure from public life of Gordon Brown, though arguably what Alastair could say would be more fitting for a book than a blog I guess. And perhaps a lot of it is in the books already, as I haven’t got to them yet.

    I have been enjoying Damian McBride’s books and articles about Brown. Whatever you may say about McBride, he is very clever and a great writer, and though he might have committed a lot of underhand skullduggery, which you may blame Brown for to whichever extent, he always paints a very very flattering picture of Gordon Brown. And to be fair, of Ed’s Miliband and Balls too. I should also add that I haven’t even seen him be disparaging towards the Blairites.

  • Adam

    In AC bio it’s written-He is one of the party¹s most in-demand speakers- you need to change the ‘1’ to an apostrophe 🙂

  • reaguns

    Alastair’s really committed to this blog these days eh! Come on Alastair, if you won’t update the comments in a timely way to let people enjoy discussing your blogs, then surely it is time, not to shut it down, but to let the comments be unmoderated? Or maybe you receive too much bile from loonies to allow that?

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