Ed Miliband’s response to the chancellor’s Budget statement was “lame”, barely addressing Osborne’s proposals and recycling attacks on the Tories, says the FT. Labour’s real vulnerability is the economy.
After the financial crisis, it was “always going to be difficult” for Labour to recover its reputation for economic management; but it has “played a weak hand poorly” by steadfastly refusing to accept any blame and assuming that the Coalition’s strategy would provoke a slump that would return Labour to power in 2015.
The recovery has undermined this strategy and forced Labour into a position almost as “hawkish” as that of the Coalition. Ed Balls has promised a budget surplus and falling national debt by 2020. The opposition has “swallowed” Osborne’s welfare cap.
But what Miliband and Balls have not done is spell out how they will achieve these goals. Instead, Miliband appears to be relying on Ukip to split the Tory vote and on a deliberately vague prospectus. “These are the tactics of a political opportunist, not a prime minister.”
Even his own side has recognised that “Ed Miliband isn’t working”, says Dan Hodges on his Daily Telegraph blog. Labour MP John Mann has implored him to “speak the language of voters in Bassetlaw not academics in Hampstead”.
Those“self-same Hampstead academics” published a letter in The Guardian, warning that Britain needs “a transformative change in direction. If Labour plays the election safe, hoping to win on the basis of Tory unpopularity, it will not have a mandate for change”.
The letter wasn’t an attack on Miliband, it was an “unprecedented display of unity”, says Polly Toynbee. The aim is to “stiffen his sinews and follow his own radical instincts”. This goes “with the grain” of a leader who has “denounced irresponsible capitalism, damned the energy companies” and shown how shrinking pay undermines the economy.
This was no knee-jerk response to the government’s budget bounce; it took time for Neal Lawson of Compass to “assemble this breadth of agreement on principles of decentralisation, devolution, green growth and accountability” and was timed to urge imagination ahead of Labour’s National Policy Forum.
But there’s not much Miliband can do, says Philip Collins in The Times. Everything hinges on the economy. Labour’s refusal to concede that it had carried on spending long after retrenchment was needed and its aggressive criticism of the Coalition’s cuts cemented the idea that Labour was “profligate and soft-headed”.
It is now obvious that the next parliament will also be dominated by cuts, and Labour still has nothing to say on how it will cope – nor is there any bold programme for State reform that will lead to better but cheaper public services.
The upshot is that we end with a “very familiar charge” that will reverberate from now until May 2015: “Labour will tax and Labour will spend”.