As always, the Today Programme on Radio 4 has an uncanny knack of making the warm, fuzzily comfortable voter in her jimjams want to spring from bed and dash her brains out against the nearest wall.
Last week it was Jeremy Hunt, the homeopathy-loving Health Secretary, who brought his soporific whisper to the airwaves. In the manner of a determinedly patient hypnotist, he softly hissed away, gently insisting that eight billion quid would miraculously appear in the NHS coffers, presumably by adding some small change to a vat of distilled water. But that was a positively enjoyable performance compared to the one given by Ed Balls this morning.
I don’t doubt that Ed Balls is clever – much cleverer than George Osborne. He is highly numerate and a proper economist who has learnt from the mistakes he saw at close quarters when he was in the Treasury. But Balls is not a politician; at least, not a good one. His judgement is terrible. He thinks that waving a wad of paper around shouting “This is the right answer! Look! I can show you all my workings!” is a way to convince the electorate, or more to the point, the commentariat, that he is, indeed, right. It is a potentially fatal misjudgement.
Voters aren’t interested in facts. For one thing, what is a ‘fact’ in politics? Our eyes glaze over when faced with the numbers. Two billion, eight billion, some left over holiday Euros, we don’t care. I wish we did, but that’s neither here nor there. We vote for politicians, they don’t get to choose us.
The truth is, Labour does best when it says things the voters can ‘get’. Give rich tax dodgers a good kicking. Love bomb nurses. Heap praise on teachers. Boo the bankers.
Similarly the Tories do best when they say things the voters ‘get’. Immigrants bad. Benefits claimants worse than MRSA. That sort of thing.
And there’s the problem in a nutshell. The Tories’ promises to give eight billion to the NHS, or two billion to subsidise rail season tickets, are irrelevant. Only the mood music matters. Ditto Balls’ earnest pleas that his sums do, honestly, add up. In any case, Tory dogwhistle stuff drives their vote to crumble in the direction of UKIP. When Labour tries some of this stuff, they, too drive their older, poor, white working class vote to UKIP, too. And when Labour plays to the left, it risks being out-lefted by the Greens and the nationalists.
My view, for what its worth, is that Labour has less to lose by tacking left than the Tories have by tacking right. When the Tories move right, that can alienate their economically dry, but socially liberal base, whilst simultaneously legitimising UKIP. But those whom Labour risk losing to the Greens tend to be more attuned to political realities. If they – we – think Labour might really be moving away from New Labour neolib nonsense, we might judge it right to give them another chance. What’s more, odd as it might sound, the older white working class vote that’s veering to UKIP may be as responsive to a left-sounding dog whistle as to those right-wing tunes.
So my advice, Earnest Ed Balls, is shut up. Don’t tie yourself to Tory spending plans, stay vague on everything, and plan to rip up the manifesto, should you get into government, because it is all nonsense, anyway. You know it, I know it, and few care either way.