One of the political/economic soap operas over the last year has been the UK Labour Party’s agonising over the perception of its economic competence. The story always starts with current polling data: either Miliband’s personal ratings or Labour’s rating for economic competence. It then often seeks to find the answer to these problems in the past: either the last years of the Labour government, or the first year of opposition when Labour was preoccupied with electing a new leader.
The latest example can be found in an article today by the Guardian’s chief political correspondent, Nicholas Watt. Here Gordon Brown’s call to invest rather than cut in 2009 is blamed, and this is contrasted with an alternative that would acknowledge the need to cut, but focus on the idea that cuts would have been fairer under Labour.
I know nothing about internal Labour politics, but it seems to me that what is going on here is confusion over what the right policy should have been, rather than how to frame it. I also suspect that what really puts the electorate off is when a political party appears confused or divided about a key aspect of policy. The taboo in Labour circles over mentioning the word borrowing is a case in point, which I made fun of before Ed Miliband fell into the same trap.
So what should Labour’s line have been? As it does not have a hidden agenda to reduce the size of the state, its line should have been based on sensible macroeconomics. As my paper with Jonathan Portes suggests, the policy should have been to avoid cuts and to invest while interest rates were stuck at ‘zero’. In other words, the recovery takes priority, and the deficit should be dealt with after the recovery has been assured. Sometimes translating good macroeconomics into simple messages can be difficult, but not in this case.