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Former Labour minister on how Miliband and Balls have called it wrong

Former Labour minister on how Miliband and Balls have called it wrong
  • Digby Jones claims Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were wrong on the economy 
  • Former trade minister under Labour says they made nightmare predictions
  • He said they drew gloomy picture of economy by this stage of the cycle 
  • But pointed out jobs figures are up, inflation and interest rates are down

By Digby Jones For The Mail On Sunday

Published: 19:04 EST, 21 February 2015 | Updated: 08:21 EST, 22 February 2015

As I was speaking to a meeting of 200 small businesses in Southampton last week, I was asked a question that is increasingly on my own mind.

'With the economy suddenly looking so rosy,' said one employer, 'how come David Cameron and the Tories are not on for a convincing victory at the next General Election?'

Twenty-four hours earlier, the same query was put by a member of the audience during BBC1's Question Time.

It's a fascinating subject. Because there is no denying that in recent weeks, the economic news has been good.

Lord Digby Jones, former trade minister under Labour, claims Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were wrong on the economy

Unemployment has fallen again and again – it's now at its lowest level for more than six years. In fact, so low are the jobless figures that in some cases, it's almost time to talk about the unemployable rather than simply the unemployed.

The number of jobs continues to soar. There are now almost 31 million Britons at work – a record figure.

And while the jobs figures are on the up, inflation and interest rates are on the way down.

At long last, wages are outstripping the cost of living – a just reward for workers after years of coping with soaring costs and no pay rises.

On high streets up and down the country, you can almost touch the sense of confidence returning as consumer spending rises. As a result, people are able to pay more tax to fund the public services we depend on.

Of course, much of the recent good news is nothing to do with the Tories – it's due to a welcome fall in oil and petrol prices.

In that respect, George Osborne is not so much an economic genius as just plain lucky. But just as Napoleon preferred generals who were lucky, there's no reason why we shouldn't prefer Chancellors with 'bonne chance' – especially if they seem to understand business and its importance to the country.

The former Labour minister said Ed Balls (pictured) issued dire, nightmare predictions of rocketing unemployment

Which brings me to Labour and Ed Miliband.

I served in the last Labour government as Gordon Brown's Trade and Investment Minister. I was a non-party political appointment – I've never joined a political party – but it pains me to say that on the economy, Miliband and his team have called it wrong time and time again.

They issued dire, nightmare predictions of rocketing unemployment. Wrong. They drew a gloomy picture of an economy by this stage of the cycle, becalmed at best, in freefall at worst. Wrong.

Miliband did appear to score some successes – for example, his pledge to freeze energy prices was popular with many voters. But with the fall in worldwide oil costs, even that policy is looking threadbare.

Yet my biggest reservation about the Labour leader is not what he's committed to, but what he won't say. I'm still waiting to hear Ed Miliband pay tribute to business, salute the massed ranks of small firms up and down the country that are the backbone of the economy.

From time to time, Chuka Umunna, Labour's industry spokesman, and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls do say warm words about business. 

But that doesn't matter until and unless we hear it from the lips of Miliband himself. I live in hope that Miliband will make a speech praising profit and congratulating people who create wealth.

Instead, the Labour leader prefers – as he did at one of his most important conference speeches – to talk instead about the evils of 'predator' capitalism, not the benefits business brings.

From time to time, Chuka Umunna, Labour's industry spokesman, does say warm words about business 

Without a thriving UK Plc, we can't have a wonderful NHS or any other viable public service for that matter. The fact that that is a Tory Election mantra, unfortunately for Labour, doesn't make it any less true.

All this may be why, as I meet businesses across the country, I detect a real worry at the thought of Ed Miliband getting his hands on the economic reins.

They feel we're finally going in the right direction and the last thing we need is a change of management – especially one that seems to have no empathy with business.

They have another worry – Miliband's avowed admiration for French president Francois Hollande's economic policies.

UK businesses don't want Britain turning into France, with a French-style equivalent of a straitjacket for business.

As for Europe, it is true that businesses hate the uncertainty of Cameron's proposal for an in/out referendum on our EU membership – a poll that is unlikely to take place before the end of 2017 at the earliest.

Far more preferable for company bosses would be a faster resolution of that debate.

BUSINESSES don't want an unreformed, sclerotic Europe that fails to encourage wealth creation and innovation. This is no Little England view. The people I talk to are as keen to see a prosperous Athens and Madrid as any Greek or Spaniard because more wealth on the Continent means more money to buy British exports.

I'll mention one final worry business owners have shared with me – the prospect of Miliband only getting the keys to No 10 with the help of the SNP.

They are horrified at the idea of a Labour Party which has failed to win England being propped up in power by a party that wants to destroy the UK.

Which brings me back to that burning question – why, in the face of all these factors, are the Tories not on course for a majority or even a landslide on May 7?

Well, one big factor is this: despite all the economic good news, not everyone is benefiting. The Coalition has been forced to take many hard decisions, and some of those decisions have hurt many people's jobs and lifestyles.

But here's one straw in the wind.

The week before last, the Tories had a terrible week – starting with the ill-timed 'Black and White' donors' ball and ending with a barrage of damaging publicity about tax avoidance.

Despite that, they did not slip back in the polls. Their ratings withstood the storm.

I make no prediction about the Election outcome – we must wait till May 7 for that.

But just over two months out, electoral logic suggests that the 2015 Election could be like the 1992 one – Labour seemingly on course to win until the last moment when voters balked at the thought of Kinnock and stuck with Major and the Tories.

Lord Jones, a cross-bench peer, served as Trade and Investment Minister under the last Labour government.


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