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Miliband’s PMQs: few Q’s, few A’s, and no P’s and Q’s

Political bloggers should never write about the big topics. When they do, they come off as vain and oafish. (Fortunately I am vain and oafish, so like many a politician, I will flout my own rule.) Politicians spout plenty of guff all the time; there is no reason to waste time listening to the ‘two legs good, four legs bad’ echo of their web cheerleaders. When it comes to British politics, the full-time career politicians are already employed to explain to us, in language accessible to a 12 year old, why “there is no plan B” or that “plan A isn’t working”. Any blogger who wades in at that level is dooming themselves to total irrelevance. That is because there are only two reasons why people read political blogs:

  • Because the reader passionately agrees with the political views of the blogger, and the blogger’s well-constructed arguments will reinforce the reader’s existing prejudices; and
  • Because the reader passionately disagrees with the political views of the blogger, and the blogger’s imbecilic ravings will reinforce the reader’s existing prejudices.

The secret of a good political blog is to stick to the very small stuff. Did somebody shout ‘ridiculous’? Exactly my point. A good political blogger has to be ridiculous in order to illuminate. A solid but surprising chorus of ‘three legs good, five nipples better’ is the only way for most bloggers to usefully contribute to public political discourse. And because no blogger is backed by the infrastructure that supports the top party politicians, bloggers can only add something original if they pick a small and manageable topic, and analyse it afresh, without worrying if they seem ridiculous. Otherwise bloggers should just stream a load of small but unexpected facts and let the readers work out their beliefs for themselves.

Take a look at a blogger like Guido Fawkes. He provides an incessant stream of micro-insights, of a kind you are unlikely to find anywhere else. No wonder his site is so much more popular than the yawn-fest of self-justification you get at LabourList.org (Alexa ranks: 34,710 and 199,745 respectively). This week Guido told us about a fascinating new discussion paper that proposes Labour adopt the opposite of the fiscal policies supported by Miliband and Balls. Meanwhile, Labourlist led with a review of some dreary propagandist pamphlet that gave 100% backing to the policies of Miliband and Balls. Oh, wait… they were both talking about the same document. So why the radically different interpretations of the Policy Network’s new paper on fiscal conservatism? It must be because Guido’s simplistic analysis was that the paper is asking Labour to do something radically different to what it has done before, whilst LabourList suggested the paper was asking for more of the same…

Confused? Any normal person would be, which is why, by now, prejudice would have kicked in for most people and the facts would have disappeared over the horizon. But if you look a little bit more closely (e.g. you read the Policy Network paper impartially) you realize that Guido’s simplistic analysis is the right one. For example, the paper says Labour made mistakes in the past. Guido 1 – 0 LabourList. On the other hand, LabourList’s blogger points to his own extension of the paper’s hard Keynesian argument. This highlights how Labour’s last government did do the things asked for in the Policy Network paper. Correct. They did. No argument there. But hold on… let us check the facts. Labour did do the things asked for in the paper, but it did them in the wrong order.

For all their disagreements, the current Tory and Labour front benches are in complete agreement about the essence of their economic disagreement. The current Tory argument is to deal with debt now, and stimulate the economy later. Hence “you can’t borrow your way out of a debt crisis”. The current Labour argument is to stimulate now, and deal with debt later. Hence “borrowing to fund growth”. The difference is really one of degree, but that is the essence of how the alternatives are presented to voters. Labour did, during their three terms in office, shift priorities between stimulating the economy and dealing with debt. That is true. As LabourList points out:

“That’s one of the reasons our national debt was much lower pre-crash than what we inherited in 1997.

Correct, but what that Labour government did was execute the sequence in the order advocated by today’s Tory government, not the order advocated by today’s Labour opposition. In other words, Labour paid down debt in their first term, and stimulated the economy afterwards. Hence the ratio of debt to GDP initially went down under Labour, and then climbed again (and was climbing for many years before the financial crisis came along). In that sense, Gordon Brown’s economic policy in 1997 was a smaller-scale version of George Osborne’s current economic policy. Brown argued he had inherited a mess from the Tories, that restraint was needed (including wage restraint), that debt should be reduced. This is what Brown said in his first budget speech:

The Chancellor is first and foremost the guardian of the people’s money. But during the 1990s the national debt has doubled. This year alone the taxpayer will pay out 25 billion in interest payments on debt, more than we spend on schools. Public finances must be sustainable over the long term. If they are not then it is the poor, the elderly, and those on fixed incomes who depend on public services that will suffer most. So, as with our approach to monetary policy, so in fiscal policy: we will now establish clear rules, a new discipline, openness, and accountability.

My first rule – the golden rule – ensures that over the economic cycle the Government will borrow only to invest and that current spending will be met from taxation.

My second rule is that, as a proportion of national income, public debt will be held at a prudent and stable level over the economic cycle. And to implement these rules, I am announcing today a five year deficit reduction plan.

Yup, that is right. In 1997 Brown was worried about high levels of debt (though it was lower than current levels), and he said the answer was a deficit reduction plan. Fair play to Brown: he did not just say he would reduce the deficit, he did it in practice. In fact, he went much further, turning the deficit into a surplus. In short, during his first 5 years as Chancellor, Brown closed the gap between tax revenues and government spending much more quickly than the Tories had planned to. Flash-forward to 2011 and we find that debt is a lot higher than it was in 1997. All of which begs a simple question. If debt in 1997 was so high that it demanded an accelerated deficit reduction program – in preference to increased spending on things like schools, and hospitals, and aircraft carriers – then why is accelerated deficit reduction the wrong response to a larger debt and very much larger deficit?

Of course there is a simple answer to how this paradox has occurred. Ed Balls, who was Brown’s economics advisor in 1997, should be well-placed to explain why debt was paramount in 1997 whilst growth is key today. He is well-placed to give the answer, but he will not give the answer, so I will give it instead. The arguments of both Tories and Labour are complete rubbish. It is perfectly possible to imagine a government that increases spending in a wasteful way that does not effectively drive long-term economic growth and only serves to make the debt crisis worse. It is also perfectly possible to imagine a government that makes destructive cuts in spending that cost more in reduced growth than they save through lower debt. In other words, the basic narrative of the economic argument between Cambourne and two-Eds, as accepted by most politicians, most journalists and (gulp) most citizens, is a convenient but absurd over-simplification. Governments can spend stupidly, and they can cut stupidly. The real question is what spending, and what cutting, best serves the national interests.

This is where sensible debate stops… for which Labour deserves more than half of the blame. Whatever you think of government decisions, at least we know what they are. A point-by-point analysis of where to cut and where to spend demands a point-by-point analysis of the alternatives offered by both the current government and the opposition. Debate is always forced into the generalities of debt vs. growth because a point-by-point comparison is unavailable. And that, more than anything, is due to the failure of Labour’s top team to offer convincing detail about what they would spend and what they would cut. This in turn has helped the Tories to top polls on economic credibility whilst Labour activists are increasingly frustrated with the nebulous position of their leaders. See here for the Guardian’s analysis of key arguments raised by Labour Party activists… hang on… it is a review of the same discussion paper by the Policy Network! Guido 2 – 0 LabourList and time to blow the final whistle on that competition.

One way to deal with a lack of substance is to become very passionate and angry. So, after all that preface, I come to the one micro-topic I wanted to blog about today. In short, I want to analyse if Miliband did well at this week’s prime minister’s questions. It is worth asking because: (1) it was an unusually spirited and fiery session; (2) it came after an especially big week for political debate (the most extensive strikes in a generation, the gloomy downward revision of economic forecasts, trouble with Iran, and Jeremy Clarkson flogging his new DVD); and (3) the journo reviews were so inconsistent, and not just because of their normal bias. Here were some of the reviews of Miliband’s PMQ performance:

Politics.co.uk – “he finally ups his game”
Spectator – “still don’t understand what he’s up to or trying to achieve”
Conservativehome – “today’s exchanges between the two party leaders were hardly edifying”
New Statesman – “turned in one of his best PMQs’ performances of the year”
Guardian – “smooth Dave strikes out at Ed”
Daily Mail – “Mr Miliband, having failed to win his verbal bout with Mr Cameron, started joining his neighbour Ed Balls in doing silly hand gestures”

Gladiators in Rome were paired up in such a way that each combatant had distinctive advantages and weaknesses. The same applies to PMQ. The Leader of the Opposition has the advantage that he asks the questions, and does not need to answer them. The PM has the advantage that he gets the final word. Miliband seems to understand this basic principle, always preparing a carefully-laid trap with his first question. However, the strategy is flawed. As everyone, David Cameron included, knows that Miliband is laying a trap, then nobody should be surprised when Cameron routinely walks around it. Which is exactly what he does. Never mind what Miliband asked, Cameron gives the answer he wants to give… which is pretty much standard operating procedure for every politician in the face of every question. Then Miliband gets upset and/or angry that Cameron did not answer, and so he gives the answer that he wanted Cameron to give. The flaw is clear. If you thought Cameron was a lying arse, then Miliband’s cleverness has reconfirmed your prejudices, in the same way that your prejudices get confirmed by reading the blogs that support your opinions. But if you have doubts about Miliband, then you will probably dismiss him as a childish smart alec, able to point fingers at Cameron but unable to offer a grown-up alternative.

For me, this was the pivotal moment in PMQ:

Yes, he really said that. Hansard agrees:

The Prime Minister: I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s entire party is paid for by the unions, but I must say that what he has just told the House is extraordinary and completely and utterly untrue. The fact is there were meetings with the trade unions yesterday, there will be meetings with them tomorrow and there will be meetings on Friday. The negotiations are underway. Let me repeat what he said in June. He said that it is wrong to strike

“at a time when negotiations are…going on”.

Yet today he backs the strikes. Why? Because he is irresponsible, left-wing and weak.

Edward Miliband: The difference is that, unlike the Prime Minister, I am not going to demonise the dinner lady, the cleaner or the nurse, people who earn in a week what the Chancellor pays for his annual skiing holiday—[ Interruption. ]

The problem with Miliband’s comment is that, no matter how you interpret it, it makes no sense whatsoever. Hence not only Miliband looks bad, but so does Ed Balls, who takes nodding his agreement to a level of ferocity that would leave Churchill the insurance dog in a neck brace. (Look at the video again and watch Balls in the background.) Most of the right-leaning commentators were more or less sarcastic but recognized that Miliband had meant to talk about how much dinner ladies, cleaners and nurses make in a year. Most of the left-leaning commentators pointed out what he meant whilst also playing down the importance of this weak interjection. But this gaff was only the cherry on top of a slice of clueless cake. Let us go through Miliband’s point again, in detail…

The difference is that,

The difference between what and what? Cameron did not allude to any differences, so why is Miliband phrasing this as a defensive answer to an imaginary question?

unlike the Prime Minister, I am not going to demonise the dinner lady, the cleaner or the nurse,

Credit to Cameron: he is not so stupid as to actually demonize ‘the dinner lady, the cleaner or the nurse’. He might support policies that leave them impoverished, but he is not in the business of demonizing voters, even if they will likely vote for Labour. And even if he did, then the difference between Cameron and Miliband would be one of style, not substance. If given the choice, I would take being demonized and having a good pension over being lauded and no pension.

Another problem with Miliband’s choice of heroines is that a lot of the strikers do not fit the profile of dinner ladies, cleaners and nurses. For example, a lot of them were teachers. Whatever you might think of the rights or wrongs of reducing the pension benefits of teachers, it is a hard sell to equate protecting teachers with protecting dinner ladies. Labour is relying on a passionate argument about people facing real hardship. Call it the ‘breadline’ argument – that government cuts will force the poorest beyond breaking point. It is a good argument, unless you spoil it by lazily applying the ‘breadline’ argument to every striker, including those in the muddled middle. This is appreciated by Cameron, who repeatedly referred to the strike’s implications for schools and border security.

I believe there are plenty of cleaners employed in the private sector. They were not striking. Cameron plays a winning hand when he makes the argument one of private vs. public sector workers, as he did in response to a later PMQ question:

The fact is that, at the end of this public sector pension reform, those people working in the public sector will have far better pensions than most people in the private sector, who are contributing that money to them.

What would I think if I was a cleaner in the private sector, hearing that cleaners in the public sector need a better pension? Miliband seems not to understand the precariousness of the ‘us and them’ generalization. Workers in the private sector are not striking. They are on the breadline. If they feel that equivalent workers in the public sector get treated better than them, then the electoral logic is more likely to favour Cameron than Miliband. But lets us move on to the soundbite that went wrong…

people who earn in a week what the Chancellor pays for his annual skiing holiday

Well, obviously Miliband meant “year” and not “week”. But even so, the argument does not stack up. In fact, there is no argument, just some impassioned babble. Miliband got carried away with his fury, fluffing his line.

Miliband’s point seemed to be that some people earn very little whilst the Chancellor is rich. That is correct. But Ed Miliband is not offering an alternative to that scenario. Miliband is not proposing that tax on people like Osborne should be raised to the level where they can no longer afford skiing holidays. On the contrary, we have to assume that Ed Miliband has no objection to public sector workers taking skiing holidays, if that is what they choose to do with their money. Some of the striking public sector workers can afford luxuries like skiing holidays. The outburst tells us more about Miliband than it does about poverty vs. luxury. Miliband comes across as eccentric for bringing up, in the heat of the moment, a story from 10 months ago which most ordinary people would have forgotten about. Going back to that story, perhaps Miliband means to imply that Osborne takes extravagantly expensive skiing holidays. Differing accounts of Osborne’s January skiing holiday put the cost at £11,000 (according to the Daily Mail) or a lot less because he stayed at a friend’s chalet (also according to the Daily Mail). Even at the exaggerated cost of £11,000 then Miliband’s analogy does not really stack up. For a start, Osborne can spend his money as he likes; even if Miliband takes more modest holidays then it would not be hard to find someone who could not afford it. Then we must consider this annual ‘breadline’ salary that Miliband is equating to £11,000. Well forgive for being a tad cruel, but China has just decided on a major upgrade of its program to help the rural poor, with increased benefits for anyone earning less than $1 a day. £11,000 is not a lot, but if it is so lousy you have to ask why Labour did not increase personal tax allowances by more. If £11,000 is so terribly meagre, then Labour should be ashamed that it raised income tax from people who earned that amount, and did so each and every year that Labour was in power. Furthermore, his ‘breadline’ exemplars do not align to the 11 grand threshold. The most junior qualified nurses still earn significantly more than £11,000 a year – check out the official bands and payscales. That means some nurses must be earning enough to afford a cheap ski holiday, like the £199 bargains currently offered by the struggling Thomas Cook chain. So if ski holidays are being treated as a dividing line between ‘us and them’, then it does not really work.

That is enough splitting of hairs over the cost of ski holidays. We all know what Miliband really meant. Miliband’s base assertion is that Cameron and Osborne cannot be trusted to make the right decisions because they are rich. As political arguments go, it is pathetic. Being rich no more makes someone wrong than being poor makes them right. If being poor was an essential qualification for understanding the plight of the poor, then most of the Parliamentary Labour Party would need to step aside in the interests of helping the poor. Labour MPs may generally come from less privileged backgrounds than Tories, but they still come from backgrounds far more privileged than the average British citizen. Implying that personal wealth must be inevitably undeserved also mires Miliband in the politics of envy. That does not mean Miliband is making a bad choice. The politics of envy might deliver a Labour victory, if there is a clear majority on Labour’s side of the dividing line. Hence the 99% are on to a good thing when they lambast the 1%. But lots of people in the muddled middle go skiing, and lots of poor private sector workers pay taxes but have no pension, leaving Miliband deeply at odds with the carefully crafted ‘aspirational’ rhetoric which helped Blair win so many elections. Good Labour leaders encourage dinner ladies to believe they might go skiing one day, in preference to asserting that nobody should.

And after all that, perhaps we forget that Cameron was asking why Miliband supported a strike when negotiations were ongoing. Miliband had already played his best card – that negotiations were not really ongoing – but it was a weak card. Because of the time it takes to organize a strike ballot, any government, whether genuinely or cynically, could walk back into negotiations the day before a strike, and throw that line of criticism into doubt. That was exactly what the Tories did. It was all a ‘trap’, as Miliband pointed out. But this hardly helps Miliband either. Miliband and the unions want to project themselves as offering sensible economic leadership, in contrast to a foolish and ideological government who serve the interests of the wealthy. It is a crude but potentially effective characterization. But, if Miliband and the unions can spot a ‘trap’ from a mile away, why do they proceed to walk straight into it? Their collective inability to avoid the trap suggests Labour may be returning to the grim days under Kinnock and Foot, when Labour was ideologically pure but unable to set a broadly populist trajectory. Only losers need to cry foul, and Labour cries foul a lot.

Leftist pundits stated that Miliband came back strongly from his mid-PMQ breakdown. I did not see any comeback, though I saw a lot of sound and fury. Miliband made some good points, such as this one:

The problem is that the Prime Minister does not understand his own policy. He does not understand that there are part-time workers earning less than £21,000 who will be hit—800,000 low-paid, part-time workers, 90% of whom are women, will pay more.

But whilst it sounds clever to point out where the PM does not understand his policy, it is unlikely to resonate with the wider public. Forgive me for the flourish, but dinner ladies, cleaners and nurses do not understand the PM’s policy. Nobody does. And if they do, they only understand a few soundbites that they heard from politicians. So, in short, they will believe Miliband if they were already inclined to believe him, and disbelieve Miliband if they were already inclined to disbelieve him. Miliband should resist the temptation to be so technical in his arguments, but he seems to lack the self-discipline. The lack of self-discipline is further demonstrated when he follows up a poorly-explained technical argument with some base silliness like this:

The Education Secretary should calm down. He tells children to behave; why does he not behave himself?

Perhaps Michael Gove should calm down. But it does not help Miliband to break away from asking questions of the primeminister just to become an unironic didactic parody. In this final, crucial, regard, Miliband is let down by the man who sits next to him. Lecturing Gove was ridiculous when Ed Balls kept chuntering on and on and on, even whilst Miliband was speaking. Look at the clip again. Who is the noisy fat kid, still rudely shouting when Miliband is trying to make himself heard? Ed Balls! In contrast, Cameron took full advantage of his gladiatorial advantage: getting the last word. Crucially, he used Balls to undermine Miliband. This is what Cameron said:

Let me remind the House of what the shadow Chancellor said about low interest rates. He said that long-term interest rates are

“the simplest measure of monetary and fiscal policy credibility”.

That is what he said, and that is what this Government are delivering.

Compared to Miliband’s elliptical arguments, this cuts right through. Dinner ladies et al can more easily check interest rates than they can calculate who were the winners and losers from a tax change. It also benefits greatly from the power of turning an opponent’s words against them, and exploits Labour’s perceived lack of credibility. As I noted above, some of the pundits thought Miliband performed well, but his real problem is the over-complication involved in every argument to defend Labour’s previous record. That is manifest when analysing Labour’s fiscal policy or when the Tories bash Ed Balls with his own words. But do not take my word for it. Balls spent the whole of PMQ pulling faces, rolling eyes and comically bawling at anyone in range. When he retires from politics he will surely make a top-notch pantomime dame. But he was briefly serious. Look at Ball’s reaction to Cameron’s last word.

Miliband cannot win unless he constructs a narrative that transports Labour from its past economic decisions to its future economic intentions. Balls is a clever chap, and surely realizes this, especially as he personally is the weak link. He may be an economics whizz, but he looks like a rabbit in the headlights when asked to reconcile the economic policy of New Labour with the economic policy of New New Labour. Thus far, 2-Eds have adopted the same opposition strategy as Cambourne previously deployed – say nothing and rely on the government’s unpopularity. It is a weak strategy, and did not serve the Tories as well as they had hoped. Furthermore, it better suits the ‘nasty’ party, whose supporters already have a more pessimistic view of human nature. In the meantime Miliband is wasting time trying to score tactical points at PMQs. Until Miliband can move beyond the mantra of ‘less cuts and more growth’, Cameron will always counter with the ‘more debt’ sucker punch.

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