Ed Miliband’s waiting game

Turning up at the March for the Alternative without an alternative

In 217BC the Roman army was wiped out by Hannibal’s Carthaginians at Lake Trasimene. The Roman general appointed in the aftermath, Quintus Fabius Maximus, reckoned, quite reasonably, that his army would be destroyed in a similar fashion if he fought Hannibal so he settled on a different strategy; he did nothing. He would wait the Carthaginian out. The strategy worked and was named in his honour, the Fabian strategy.

Fabianism, such a vital part of the history of the Labour party, takes its name from the Roman general; the Fabian Society, founded in 1884, eschewed violent revolution in favour of the gradual democratic evolution of socialism, hence its name.

But Labour leader Ed Miliband has been taking this ‘do nothing’ strategy too far. He seemed oddly proud to announce that, when it came to ideas, the Labour party is currently “a blank sheet of paper”. Nowhere is this lack of ideas, direction and leadership more apparent than on the matter dominating British politics; the economy and how to deal with Britain’s horrendous budget deficit.

Back in September 2010 Miliband said “I won’t oppose every coalition cut”. Since then he has opposed every coalition cut. Even a cut as ‘progressive’ as ending Child Benefit for top rate tax payers has been opposed by Miliband.

And Miliband and Labour refuse to tell anyone what they would be doing instead. Rather, when asked if he would reverse any of the measures he opposes Miliband said “I can make no commitment to do anything differently”. He is not alone. His Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, said “Ed Miliband and I are clear on this; no commitments to reverse these changes, they would be irresponsible”.

Labour used to have a plan. Alistair Darling, Chancellor under Gordon Brown, proposed to halve the deficit in four years. This involved £14 billion in savings for the year commencing in April, just £2 billion less than the coalition. Both Ed’s signed up to this plan yet have steadfastly refused to outline what they would cut.

The Fabian Strategy here is obvious. The UK is in a dreadful fiscal situation, borrowing £450 million per day £120 million of which is spent on paying the interest on the existing debt – more than on schools, hospitals and the Police. Sorting this out will require the kind of fiscal tightening Britain hasn’t seen in 30 years – since the last time a Conservative government was elected to clean up the mess left by a Labour one. There really is no way to avoid or postpone this. And Miliband, unless he is an utter fool, knows it. But he can, he hopes, keep his head down, stay away from anything smacking of controversy, and ride a wave of discontent back to power in four years when he will, he hopes, arrive in Number 10 with the dirty work done.

Will it work? Already there are rumblings from his own party. Hazel Blears, a member of the Brown cabinet, said “The public expect us to at least give a broad direction of travel. They are pretty reasonable – they don’t expect you to dot every i and cross every t about your policy – but I think they are worried that we haven’t been as clear as we ought to be”

And voters seem unimpressed. Labour have enjoyed narrow opinion poll leads over the coalition parties but on the issue of the key issue of the economy voters consistently prefer the coalition to Labour. At the last count ComRes found that Cameron and George Osborne had approval ratings of 37% and 25% on the economy compared to just 18% and 14% for Miliband and Balls. Even Nick Clegg scored 24%.

The Fabian Strategy didn’t do much for Fabius, the Romans got fed up with waiting for a victory and sacked him. So far Labour’s headline opinion poll figures have insulated Miliband from such a fate. But he has staked everything on the failure of the coalition’s economic program and, if the program works, Miliband, with nothing of his own to fall back on, will be in trouble. Surrounded by deputies who all want his job, he may well end up, not like Fabius Maximus, but Julius Caesar.

This article originally appeared at Global Politics

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