The Labour leader’s gimmicks and populism have destroyed his credibility.
Another week passes and another policy announcement can be heard from team Miliband. In his most recent attempt to shore the diminishing Labour lead in the polls, as well as his dire personal ratings, Ed Miliband has gone about trying to outflank the Tories on welfare policy. In the most recent policy announcement, a labour government will end job seekers allowance for roughly 100,000 18-to-21-year-olds and replace it with a ‘youth allowance.’ This ‘youth allowance,’ incidentally, will pay the same as the current job seekers allowance for 18-to-21-year-olds (about £57 a week) but will be means tested to take into account parental income. Furthermore, even those whose parental income is low enough to make them eligible to qualify for the ‘youth allowance’ will be required to hold a qualification of at least A-Level (level 3) standard. The reason being is that it is better these young people are in some sort of training than claiming. On top of this, individuals claiming regular job seekers allowance will now have to contribute at least 5 years of national insurance payments rather than the current two in order to qualify for the full amount.
In the eyes of this columnist it is, on the whole, a rather sound policy. It certainly attempts to address the concerns the 78% of people polled for the Public Policy Research who believes the welfare system is unfair. It simultaneously incentivises work and rewards contribution. But one swallow does not make a summer, and the same goes with policy. Whilst team Miliband has been announcing a new policy on what seems like a weekly basis, they have completely failed to convince the public that there is any form of coherent narrative behind these announcements. Ever since “too far, too fast” was proven to be demonstrably false and it increasingly looks like some sort of relief is on the way for the “squeezed middle” who are suffering from a “cost of living crisis”, we have seen an increase in policy announcements that are made for tactical reasons at the expense of any strategic thinking.
Populism is the main order of the day for Ed Miliband now. All his talk of a “new form of capitalism” is just a front for populist ideas masquerading as economic strategy and the public know it. At least in the days of “too far, too fast” labour’s strategy was to be the most Keynesian party on offer and for the most part this was backed up by some genuinely ideological belief and economic reasoning. But as the economy started to recover and labour moved onto the “cost of living crisis”, economic reasoning was jettisoned along the way. Peter Kellner in the Guardian muses over why policies such as a two year freeze on energy prices, curbing the power of landlords and blocking foreign takeovers of companies are so popular and his main conclusion is that the reason why Labour are not being rewarded for these policies are because of Ed Miliband the man. This is certainly true, to an extent, but it is only a small part of the problem. Don’t forget that Margaret Thatcher was also extremely unpopular personally prior winning 1979 election, The Sun calling her the most unpopular woman in Britain. But Peter Kellner also touches on another reason why these policies, though popular, do not translate into poll leads for labour. He points out that whilst 64% of people saw the potential takeover of AstraZeneca by Pfizer as a bad thing (and 54% wanted the government to actively block it), this comes from a sense national pride mixed with a fear of Britain losing control over its own destiny rather than some notion of public interest. Kellner goes on to make the observation that:
“It’s not so much that people don’t want those specific takeovers that fail a public interest test; they don’t want foreign takeovers at all. Or rather, they say they don’t. Were we to experiment with autarky and bar all foreign investment in the UK, the price we would pay in lost jobs and plummeting living standards would quickly become apparent.”
He summarises this by saying:
“We behave in our daily lives as if we accept the argument that an open economy gives us a more prosperous economy – but when asked we say we don’t.”
It is this apparent dichotomy in the public mind that Ed Miliband and his team fundamentally misunderstand. For no matter how popular each individual policy is, people know that you can have too much of a good thing. Most people realise that the best way to grab themselves a slice of the economic pie is to ensure that there is as bigger pie as possible. They can see that, appealing as each policy is, combined they make for a sure fire way of stunting Britain’s nascent recovery as they do not constitute a sound economic agenda. It is, in a way, a similar shortcoming one can observe in the SNP’s independence campaign. Both parties are substituting reasoned economic arguments for policy gimmicks and freebies. Luckily, in both cases, most people are not fooled.
Margaret Thatcher won 1979 despite being hugely unpopular and underestimated, proving that personal image, though important, is not everything. What she did offer, however, was a radical, but sound, economic alternative to the economics of the post war consensus that had managed to turn the UK in the sick man of Europe. It shouldn’t be forgotten that many of Ed Miliband’s policies would have been just at home in the pre-Thatcher era. But yet this is what he is offering. Not a strategy for growth, but a plethora of 1970’s style policies that a certain to hamper the UK economy.
Labour are in a mess. The more economic policy they promulgate, the more they undermine their long term credibility at the expense of increasing short term benefits. Likewise, the more they undermine their economic credibility, the more policy announcements on secondary issues such as welfare fail to resonate. If Labour cannot even get the fundamentals right, what hope do they have of winning the next general election?