Gordon Brown dealt a blow to Labour's economic credibility by wrongly giving the impression in his final year as prime minister that the party failed to understand the importance of tackling Britain's unprecedented peacetime budget deficit, the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, has suggested.
In remarks that highlight an intense debate at the highest levels of the Labour party, Umunna indicated that the party is struggling to make a breakthrough on the economy to this day after "the seeds were sown" under the last government.
The shadow business secretary, who was speaking after an opinion poll showed that Ed Miliband has a net approval rating of minus 46 points, was less than effusive about whether Labour could win the election.
Asked by Alastair Campbell in an interview with GQ whether Labour can win, Umunna said: "We can. I don't know if we will, but we can, if we make the right calls, if we focus on people and their ambitions and not on the bubble at Westminster. Bill Clinton said we have to own the future. We have to tell a hopeful, optimistic, aspirational story that relates to their lives."
Umunna indicated that he believes Labour is struggling to shake off Brown's legacy after he cited his decision in the summer of 2009 to say that the choice at the 2010 election would be between Labour investment and Tory cuts.
Critics of Brown have argued that the former prime minister undermined years of work restoring Labour's economic credibility by declining in the summer of 2009 to acknowledge that the winner of the 2010 election would have to impose major spending cuts.
Alistair Darling, chancellor at the time, and Lord Mandelson, then the business secretary, warned Brown in private at the time that he was making a major mistake. They advised him to say the choice at the election would be between Labour cuts and Tory cuts and the electorate should be invited to choose which party would impose the cuts in a fairer way.
Umunna, who was elected to parliament in 2010, made clear that his generation of Labour politicians are still paying the price for Brown's tactics in the summer of 2009.
In the GQ interview, he said: "My view is that the seeds were sown under the last government and Gordon [Brown] – for whom I have a lot of respect. His refusal to use the word 'cuts' in trying to frame the economic debate as investment versus cuts gave the impression we didn't understand that debt and deficit would have to be dealt with."
The shadow business secretary reinforced his criticism of Brown by saying that Labour had a good story to tell in the run up to the economic crash of 2008 and in its handling of the crisis. He said: "I do think we need to talk more proudly about our record. We do need to explain and rebut this notion that we crashed the car … My main argument in my conference speech was that we did not crash the car. Labour left the country in a far better state, and I say it all the time."
Umunna's remarks echo the criticisms of supporters of Tony Blair, who say that Labour's consistent lead in the opinion poll should not be allowed to mask poor poll personal ratings for the Labour leader and weak ratings on the economy.
In a YouGov/Sunday Times poll on Sunday Miliband rated minus 46 points against David Cameron on minus 12 points.
The Blair supporters say that Miliband is suffering from severe damage inflicted on the Labour party by his patron, Brown, who initially declined to acknowledge the depth of the recession when Darling told the Guardian in the summer of 2008 that the world was facing "arguably the worst" downturn in 60 years.
The then prime minister compounded this mistake, according to the Blair supporters, by failing to acknowledge that the subsequent growth in the structural budget deficit would inevitably mean tax rises and spending cuts.
Blair's supporters say that Brown's mistake allowed George Osborne to frame the economic debate in the run up to the last election and into the current parliament by claiming that the deficit was caused by uncontrolled public spending.
The Blair supporters say that the deficit was in fact a consequence of the global economic slump, which saw the British economy shrink by about 5%, forcing an increase in government borrowing to make up for the shortfall after tax receipts fell dramatically.
Campbell, who served as Blair's communications director between 1994-2003, made clear his unease with Brown in his interview with Umunna by asking him why Labour was not 20 points ahead in the polls. Campbell asked Umunna: "We made a bad mistake in allowing the sense to develop that it was their [Labour's] fault because they've failed to rebut the Tory line about 'the mess we inherited'." When Umunna said Labour needs to challenge the Tory claim that it "crashed the car", Campbell added: "We have totally played into that though."
Miliband has used a separate interview with Campbell in Red magazine to reiterate his call, made in his speech to the Labour conference last year, for 50% of the party's MPs to be women.
The Labour leader told Campbell: "We've got to get to 50% in the future, and we've got to get to 50% of women MPs in parliament for Labour. I said in my conference speech last year, that there was a new feminist movement not satisfied that 40% of Labour's shadow cabinet are women, and they're right.
"Cameron did a target and then didn't make it. I want to let my actions speak for themselves, but I want to get to 50%, yes."
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