Labour's lack of conviction doesn't help it deflect reckless rightwing attacks

Muddy Boots Glastonbury

In all the mud now being thrown in Labour’s direction from Fleet St, much of it close to self- parody (“Tax-dodging foreign billionaire lashes Miliband”), you may not have noticed Monday’s Guardian report in which a heavyweight elections analyst suggests that Red Ed (copyright, Daily Mail) is still on course for No 10 in May.

Let’s not waste too much time on veteran academic, Professor Paul Whiteley’s analysis, based on mathematical models in Patrick Wintour’s report, which look at what happened to particular seats in previous elections, rather than overall share of the poll. Whiteley is too experienced not to know that things can go wrong – though his British Electoral Study called the 2005 and 2010 results pretty accurately – and that the SNP challenge in Scotland could upend Miliband.

But the prediction is a useful reminder at a time when Miliband is under so much pressure that his uninspiring core vote strategy – a 35% poll share – might be enough to get him a result, albeit in coalition with God-knows-who. More than any election with which I have been involved since 1970 ( I thought Harold Wilson would lose despite what most polls said) the outcome – and consequences - of this one are impossible to predict.

The Boots fiasco is both comic and menacing. You’ve not heard ? Well, the Sunday Telegraph interviewed Stefano Pessina (73), the Italian-born billionaire entrepreneur who has ended up controlling dear old Boots and who re-domiciled it to Switzerland to cut its corporate tax bill – from a pre-merger £90m in 2006 to £9m in 2010, according to Monday’s Mail. It still screams “Labour’s War on Boots” across page one.

After further mergers the retail chemist conglomerate is now US-based. That may not necessarily be bad for Boots staff , investors and customers. Wicked Kraft are reinvesting in Cadburys (despite tampering with the sacred cream egg ingredients). But it doesn’t justify giving such a platform to a tax-shy, Monte Carlo-based Italian who doesn’t live or vote here. The national-sovereignty-conscious Telegraph, whose own owners, Fred and Dave Barclay are themselves tax exiles, led both its news pages and its business pages on this “so-what” interview. I look forward to Private Eye telling us all how it came about.

Labour’s Mr Sensible, Douglas Alexander, led the debunking of Pessina on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. Even cautious Chuka Umunna joined in. On Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday Ed Balls pointed out that the only specific UK policy the old Italian moneybags criticised is the threat to withdraw from the EU. That’s Tory policy, not Labour’s, and the Eurosceptic Telegraph didn’t make much of it. No surprise there then.

Balls also took apart the Labour-baiting splash in Monday’s Times, the one in which leading UK universities attack Miliband’s pledge to cut student tuition fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000 at a notional annual cost of £2bn. The universities have been lobbying against this potential income loss for months. You can see their point. BUT WAIT FOR IT: As the Times’s sister paper reminded its readers on Sunday, there is a growing consensus that suggests that up to half the student loan book will never be repaid because young graduates may never be able to afford it.

This is a “huge hidden bill” for the taxpayer because the coalition calculated only a 30% non-payback when it tripled fees in 2011, says Balls. “These are not really loans at all.” In low-wage Britain ( the young are hit hardest) a university qualification and £40,000 of debt may not be a good investment for graduates with the wrong sort of degree. It’s been a problem in the US for at least a generation.

So Balls has a point, yes? He does indeed, the £2bn annual “loss” is already funny money. The fees have been wrongly-priced and will burden both ex-students and the wider economy. Does it matter? Will it swing thoughtful votes? I’m not so sure. Why not? Two reasons.

First is that Labour may have good and rational policy points to make – Alexander was also strong on the delayed Chilcot report on Sunday. But its overall position is not very coherent, not very clear, as Matthew D’Ancona, the Guardian’s new commentator ( a refugee from Telegraph Towers, as it happens) argues here.

Is Miliband “austerity-lite” in wanting cuts, but more slowly and fairly than David Cameron, or is he “ Syriza-lite,” a more radical Red Ed, as D’Ancona suggests? I think his heart beats to the left rhythm, his head to the austerity-lite option which hard facts of life will impose on him either way – as they did on Blair/Brown, currently on France’s President Hollande and (in 1981) on President Francois Mitterrand.

So will events impose themselves on Syriza in due course, if it pushes its anti-austerity mandate too far, too fast and too crudely. Listening to Green MP, Caroline Lucas, talking on Today a few minutes ago, I heard her start strongly, then slip into fast-talking and less credible assertions about taxes (“abolish personal allowances”?) and spending. Syriza faces similar danger when dealing with the Germans.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s clever new finance minister, is an expert on games theory, so Sunday pundit Camilla Cavendish reminds us, he knows the perils of The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Rationally, both Athens and Berlin want and need a deal on debt, but could betray each other under the pressure of events. Varoufakis is sounding out George Osborne on Monday. Tricky for them both too. We need the eurozone to survive.

This leads me to my second point. Cameron is posing the coming election choice in terms of “chaos versus competence”, as ministers repeatedly remind voters – chaos under the weak, confusing unstable coalition which Miliband will have to lead or moderate devil-you-know competence with Dave and George. By 7 May he half-expects the eurozone to be in even more trouble.

Who does that benefit ? Pro-EU Miliband or Eurosceptic Dave? You decide, but lack of clarity or conviction in some of Labour’s positions does not help deflect reckless and ridiculous attacks from the oligarch press.

That is the significance of the critique of Labour’s anti-private sector stance in the NHS, made all last week by the likes of Alan Milburn and Lord Ara Darzi, super-surgeon turned Labour minister, who know from experience in office that the NHS needs more diversity of provision to meet 21st century challenges. Even Cameron’s family is jittery about NHS England. Welsh challenges are examined here. Labour can’t safely disown its recent NHS past (which was rather successful).

Confusing, eh ? Yes. And therein lies the real worry. That in a complex, fearful and confusing world voters on 7 May could opt for simplistic certainties of more single-minded parties. Humble the City of London with the Greens ? Quit Europe with Ukip and the Tory right? Quit Britain with the SNP and assorted small country idealists ? Or muddle on through with Dave or Ed?

In voting for Syriza Greeks rejected an austerity at least four times worse than our own (a 25% fall in GDP, a 25% unemployment rate etc) in favour of confident, inexperienced idealism. It must have been tempting. It may tempt voters here. Let’s see what happens next.

Powered by article was written by Michael White, for on Monday 2nd February 2015 11.41 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010