Labour’s instant denial of its manifesto damages politics

Published by The Independent (25th May, 2015)

Politics is a brutal business – and none know this better than Ed Balls. The Brownite bruiser, a less than popular figure in his own party as well as among opponents, has confessed to friends that he was distraught to lose his West Yorkshire seat, such was his confidence over seeing off his Tory challenger. Instead his was the defeat that defined the election, greeted with ecstatic delight on the right and leaving his wife Yvette Cooper with a clear run at the Labour leadership.

But in his first interview since the election, Balls emerged as a rather dignified character. He remained loyal to a leader with whom, in private, he had his differences, and shouldered his share of blame for the electorate’s thumping rejection of his party. “In the end, he didn’t persuade people he could be prime minister, but I didn’t persuade people I could be the chancellor either.” He added, in words which should echo round his party, that it is too early to determine the full cause of Labour’s defeat.

Politicians when you get to know them can be very different from their public personas. But what a welcome contrast this newly-reflective Balls presents to so many of his former parliamentary colleagues as they pour scorn on the man they were all saying earlier this month had to be prime minister. Now they claim they knew all along that Ed Miliband was a muppet, his manifesto riddled with mistakes, and his economic stance lacking the slightest credibility.

Is it any wonder there is so little public trust in politicians? One minute voters hear leading lights in the Labour party promoting Miliband as best person to run the country, jeering at those who argue differently, then days later later the same people say that much of what he stood for was nonsense. Perhaps this is inevitable given the scale of defeat, but many Labour figures’ unseemly scramble to rubbish their former leader comes across as devious and can only diminish still further the soiled image of Westminster.

Take the mansion tax, a flawed policy foolishly touted by Labour as the answer to the NHS funding crisis when it would raise a pittance at best. As shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham endlessly argued this case; now he admits this was “symbolism”, rooted in the politics of envy. He is right; this was one of those strange policies that prove popular in focus groups yet play badly in practice since they underline core concerns about a party. Yet the public is entitled to wonder why Burnham pushed the policy with such passion for so long.

Burnham should not be unfairly blamed since all Labour’s leadership candidates are lining up to eviscerate Miliband’s manifesto. Yvette Cooper wants corporation tax cut after standing on a platform to put it up. Mary Creagh now argues against the absurd pledge to cut tuition fees. And Liz Kendall is among those suddenly seeking an early vote on EU membership as well as backing free schools and condemning the energy price freeze.

It gets worse among the wider party as Labour comes to terms with what its former policy chief calls possibly the greatest crisis in its history. The flip-flopping highlights the depth of the party’s predicament after an election result that seems so obvious in retrospect. Yet Labour seems to be rushing far too fast into its leadership contest, failing to take time to fully interrogate its failure, as an over-powerful union anoints Burnham.

Members should be wary of a contender attracting many of Miliband’s allies, especially when their disastrous legacy is under sustained attack – and when he is, as heroic campaigner Julie Bailey reminded us yesterday, indelibly stained by his stance on the worst health scandal this century. Meanwhile Blairites and Brownites re-engage in their self-destructive wars of the past, while others argue over a new electoral landscape that means they must appeal to voters flirting with Ukip as well as to the metropolitan types who were behind Labour’s success in London.

Yet the truth is that Tory infighting would have been just as bad had they lost, if not worse, while the Liberal Democrat struggle for the party’s soul would be more intense if they had enough MPs left for anyone to care. Indeed, the Tories were equally shocked by the result. One prominent figure told me he spent the day after the election in a state of panic since the Conservatives were so well prepared for coalition talks but had done nothing to get ready for their first Queen’s Speech as a majority government.

Ultimately, we are witnessing again the flaws in a political system that pretends that all those flying one banner think the same as they parrot lines dictated from the top – that is, until after an election. Curiously, in some ways the two main parties were strengthened by the result, increasing their share of the vote for the first time in almost 30 years and seeing off the insurgents, except in Scotland. Yet this only makes it all the more important for them to modernise the way they approach the world.

One small step would be to encourage more independence among MPs. Not only would granting a degree of devolution within party ranks be more in keeping with the digital age, but it might end up bolstering the party system. The close campaign and good weather on polling day may have led to a high turnout, but the public remains wary of politicians, who all too often take them for fools. Passionate debate is the lifeblood of politics and can rejuvenate parties. It should take place before elections, not just in the wake of debilitating defeat, and in a way that only serves to undermine politics still further.

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