London was the destination last weekend for mass anti-austerity demonstration organized by the TUC. As always, numbers vary depending who you speak too, but it was undeniably a respectable turnout.
Notable among the attendees was Labour leader Ed Miliband, no doubt keen to prove his credentials as an ally of Unions.
On the face of it, there would be nothing unusual about a Labour leader marching in solidarity with the TUC and assorted other Left leaning groups. However the anti-cuts message of the demonstrators sits especially awkwardly for our perennially Awkward Ed.
Labour’s policy on government spending has become something of a mirage; kept deliberately vague so people can see what they want to see. For the fire breathing Old Left, Labour are taking a no nonsense approach and opposing all cuts all of the time, thus defending critical front line services (which translates as ‘every single Public Sector job’) and guaranteeing investment in deprived areas (which translates as ‘Labour constituencies’). For the moderates in Labour, Ed and Ed are proving how responsible they are by accepting that some cuts are necessary, though they prefer the euphemism ‘difficult choices’.
The strange thing is that all sides are willing to play along with the farce. The party line seems to be that if they focus their energies on the Coalition, they won’t have to think too hard about the gaping policy shaped hole in the manifesto.
The problem of course is that politicians have two masters; their own members and the voters. Immediately after the leadership contest and midway through a parliament, Ed Miliband could be forgiven for concentrating on keeping the party faithful happy. However a time comes when leaders need to leave the warm bosom of the party members, and face the cold blast of public scrutiny.
Quite when that time will come is open to debate. The by-elections in Corby and Manchester Central should be easy Labour wins. But conversely this won’t do them any favours in the long run. Cosseted by a half decent lead in the polls and a couple of easy by-election wins, Labour will be tempted to put off the uncomfortable decision they are inevitably going to have to have with themselves about where the cuts will be. The longer they leave, the harder it will be and less credible they’ll seem when – through gritted teeth – they do get announced.
Just as the Tories are going to face a day of reckoning over Europe, at some point Labour are going to have to stop trying to be all things to all people and finally admit where the cuts will fall. For a party leadership still tainted by the spendaholic New Labour years, it will be better to take the hit sooner rather than later.