In the Media

Labour is losing the economic battle, so it's turning to crime

PUBLISHED March 12, 2012

As David Cameron gets a red carpet welcome from Barack Obama today, he can be grateful for political friendship. When in Washington, Nicolas Sarkozy was taken to a sausage restaurant. In terms of status, top dog hospitality beats the hot dog variety. Or so the Prime Minister may console himself.

Dean Acheson, President Truman's secretary of state, once remarked of the bond between the UK and the US that "unique did not mean affectionate". While today's transatlantic ties could hardly be warmer, Mr Cameron's special relationships back home appear deathly cold. The Right of his party does not trust him, his praiseworthy championing of gay marriage has enraged the Church, and the Coalition is in turmoil.

With the Lib Dems at war over the NHS Bill and tax, pundits are declaring the Coalition all but dead. The prognosis of a necrotising government devouring itself from within is too gloomy. Those close to Mr Clegg deny that the "tycoon tax" he proposed in The Daily Telegraph is a Budget non-starter, with one senior aide arguing that it "insults our intelligence [to claim] that it isn't a runner".

Nor was the tax a last-minute wheeze. The Lib Dem brainstorming session over a glass of whisky on Thursday night was, I am told, convened merely to settle on a name for the proposal. Whether or not the tycoon tax turns out to be a snappy label for widely trailed curbs on allowances and loopholes for the richest, these are not easy times for Mr Clegg. At least the Lib Dems can draw comfort from the popularity paradox. The worse things get for Mr Clegg, the worse they also get for Ed Miliband. As one Lib Dem says: "Lord Oakeshott is getting more coverage on the economy than Ed Balls."

Where some hush would normally precede a Budget now nine days away, the public bartering between Lib Dems and Tories has reached the volume of a Metallica concert. In that cacophony, Labour risks becoming a phantom force. Chuka Umunna and Liam Byrne, who made interesting speeches in the past few days, might as well have been talking to their goldfish.

The two Eds' joint appeal for growth and fairness at their pre-Budget press conference yesterday was a muted affair, despite Mr Balls's charge that the Chancellor had already given top rate taxpayers a £1.6 billion tax cut. As the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, exactly the same sum will be docked from working tax credits in next week's Budget, deterring many families from working.

Mr Balls has tried outrage. Conversely, he has recently been collegiate, endorsing so many possible Budget measures that, if the Chancellor were to reinstate the Window Tax of 1696, some might expect his shadow to murmur vague assent.

If George Osborne were actually to include Vince Cable's mansion tax in this show-and-tell Budget, then - as one Labour insider says - "he would make all Ed Balls's Christmases at once and get Labour out of the pickle it is in." With the chances of the Chancellor playing Santa to Mr Balls near zero, Labour is in a quandary.

Warnings of the immediate plight faced by many families have failed to kindle an uprising. Longer term, the Government's panacea, the universal credit, will cost 150,000 poorer working mothers up to £68 a week and push a quarter of a million children deeper into poverty, according to research published today by Save The Children. Yet there is scant evidence that even voters who will pay the highest price are ready to put their faith in Mr Miliband.

Since Labour, as Mr Balls tacitly concedes, is not going to win the next election on the economy, another stratagem must be found. With health in the bag, the invisible Opposition needs a second potential election-winner in an area where the Coalition is heading for disaster. Its chosen battleground is crime.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary and a likely future leader, opened hostilities at the weekend, producing evidence that the Government has cut the number of police officers dealing with 999 calls by 5,000. This is despite figures from the British Crime Survey showing that personal offences, including violence, are up by 11 per cent, the steepest rise for a decade. In the Balls/Cooper interpretation, even Tony Blair could do no more than neutralise his party's poor reputation on crime. The time has come, they say, to establish Labour as the party of law and order.

That argument has already opened a fissure with those who fear that garnering short-term advantage by appearing to outflank the Tories on the Right will backfire at the election. Should Labour win, it would inherit the lethal cocktail of seething jails, rampant crime, empty coffers and bankrupt thinking. Some in the party worry that Labour's old "obsession" with focus groups and polling may trump the need for a more "sophisticated" view, consistent with Mr Miliband's crusade for a better society.

Mr Miliband, who has vacillated in the past, must now decide which way to go. Last week he hosted a private crime seminar for policy experts at which he acknowledged the link between social and criminal justice. His dilemma, as he must know, is to avoid looking soft on crime while also shunning draconian measures that feed Britain's obsession with incarceration. Many Labour MPs, used to complaints from fearful voters, will favour a get-tough stance that has done little or nothing to cut crime and stop re-offending.

Luck has decreed that the Labour leader, struggling with a problem that Mr Blair amplified and Gordon Brown ignored, finally has a get-out-of jail-free card, provided by Mr Cameron. Labour did not want the elected police commissioners favoured by the Government, but now, with legislation in place and elections due this year, senior figures have discerned their big chance.

With the Tories in disarray over a flagship policy, Labour is urgently, if belatedly, scrambling candidates who, it hopes, will sweep the board in Manchester and other big northern cities, ensuring that one electoral map turns red. While the risk is that crime keeps rising, the prize is commissioners who would kick-start civic action and ensure that the women, children and mentally ill people who drift into the clutches of criminal justice are diverted to more useful forms of help or punishment. "This is our chance to show that you can be successful on crime without being Attila the Hun," says one senior Labour moderate.

Crime is becoming the party's bellwether topic. On the economy, where the two Eds have shown the unity and the fairness that the Coalition lacks, no one is listening. On criminal justice, an audience awaits. The danger is that few issues are as likely to reawaken the internal dissent, the factionalism and the kneejerk fixes of the Blair/Brown years, exacerbated this t
ime round by rising crime, hellish prisons and a growing threat to public safety.

The test of any government is how it treats its most troubled citizens. The test of any opposition party is whether it can use the oblivion years to make sense of once intractable problems. On both of those measures, crime will be the ultimate test of whether Ed Miliband's Labour Party is fit to govern.