The Tories have a plan to beat Labour in 2015, however dire the economic situation. They will tell the voters - “don’t blame us - it is Labour’s fault”. This could be highly effective. Polls show that more people still blame excessive spending by the last Labour government for the state of the economy than blame the policies of the Coalition. Unless Labour takes action urgently to change public perception, this issue is a ticking time-bomb set to explode to cause maximum damage.
The Tories have hired Lynton Crosby as their election supremo for 2015. He is known as the “Australian Karl Rove” – a reference to the “evil genius” who used highly aggressive tactics to help George W Bush. Crosby will have noted how Barack Obama used the economic legacy of the Bush regime against Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama’s pitch was – "Why hand the keys back to the guys who drove the car into the ditch?" It is easy to imagine Tory posters grouping Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls above that question.
Obama may have been right about the blameworthiness of the Republicans. However, Labour can make a compelling argument that the economic crisis in the UK was not principally its fault but was the result of an international banking crisis with its roots in the US.
The central Tory charge is that Labour over-spending was to blame for the deficit/debt problem in May 2010. The ONS graph below illustrates very clearly that the facts do not support this. Immediately before the banking crisis struck in 2007/8, the UK’s debt was significantly lower as a percentage of GDP than it had been when Labour came to power in 1997. It was only after the crisis and as a result of the ensuing economic mayhem that the deficit and debt increased very dramatically. Furthermore, the Tories’ criticism overlooks the fact that they were pledging to match the level of Labour’s spending right up until the banking crisis.
Labour cannot escape all responsibility for the fact that the banking crisis itself occurred. The Labour leadership has already admitted fault and apologised for failing to regulate the banks tightly enough. However, here too, the Tory attack is undermined by their own actions - they were calling for even less "burdensome"regulation at the time.
Labour can never hope to comprehensively win this argument - it was on their watch that the deficit rose to excessive levels. The best they can hope is to neutralise the issue so that the next election is fought on the record of the Tories post-2010 rather than of Labour pre-2010.
Labour needs to start the task of persuasion urgently. After the 2010 election, the Coalition was highly disciplined in constantly reiterating their narrative that it was all Labour’s fault. Labour was deflated, disorganised and distracted by its own leadership campaign. The Coalition’s version of history is now well embedded in the mind of the electorate. If Labour waits until the next election to challenge it, they will find it is far too late.
It will not be at all easy to tackle this issue. It is rarely enough in politics to be right or even to have the best arguments. Labour will need to grab media and public attention for what looks like a stale issue. They also need someone delivering the message who has credibility with crucial swing voters.
Ideally Labour would like someone who the media will cover, who is compelling and who has sway with crucial swing voters. Someone who can do a similar job to Bill Clinton at last year’s Democratic Convention when he took apart the Republican economic argument in language that the ordinary voter could grasp without feeling they were being patronised.
It will be difficult for Ed Miliband or Ed Balls or any of the Shadow Cabinet to even get a hearing. They may have to thnk outside the box.
Perhaps Miliband could approach someone like Eddie Izzard, the comedian rumoured to be considering running to be mayor of London? Perhaps Izzard could make the point, not only with humour but also using charts like the maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot used flip-charts to great effect in the US in the 1990s?
Or perhaps Miliband could ask Tony Blair? This would be a deeply controversial idea in the Labour Party, of course. However, if Blair agreed he could be highly effective. He may be unpopular on the Left but he still holds great sway with target swing voters. The issue concerns not only Labour’s electoral prospects but his legacy too. He wrote about it recently in the New Statesman - “Labour should be very robust in knocking down the notion that it “created” the crisis.” He was clear that the cause of the crisis was the “financial tsunami that occurred globally, starting...in the US.”
Asking Blair’s help would have an element of risk for Miliband who has been at pains to distance his party from Blair and New Labour.
Whoever he enlists for the difficult task, it is essential that Miliband ensures this Tory electoral time-bomb is urgently defused. The result of the next election could depend on it.