Labour's Pains

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The shock resignation of Alan Johnson as Labour's shadow chancellor and the appointment of Ed Balls to the post has brought to the fore Labour's internal tensions over its direction and strategy.

Such tensions centre on how the Labour Party should deal with the budget deficit and respond to the Con-Dem cuts.

Ed Miliband has sought to balance different pressures. Despite trade union support enabling him to clinch victory over his brother, and his apparent distancing of himself from New Labour when he described himself as part of a "new generation" of leaders, he quickly shunned the label of "Red Ed".

The Tories claim that the rationale for the extent of the cuts is that they are necessary to clear up the mess bequeathed to them by Gordon Brown. Rather than confronting this argument head on both Miliband and Johnson seemed to accept its logic and the idea that Labour had lost all economic credibility. They agree that cuts must be made, arguing mainly over the scale and speed of the austerity measures.

In contrast, Balls has argued that Labour should accept no timetable for cutting the deficit and focus on economic growth. Balls is likely to give George Osborne a much rougher ride than Johnson, and many people will hope that his appointment will signal much greater opposition to the cuts by Labour than we have seen so far.

However, Balls has apparently already watered down his position and now endorses the official Labour plan to halve the deficit over four years despite previous criticisms.

Such manoeuvrings are more than just an entertaining sideshow. Across Britain many people look to the Labour Party as a vehicle of opposition to the coalition's cuts.

This was clear in the recent Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election where Labour increased its majority from 103 last May to 3,558. Hatred of the Tories can translate into support for Labour.

As such Labour's position on the deficit can have an impact on how that opposition develops as people look for a lead over how to resist the cuts.

It is true that pressures from below also impact on the Labour Party itself - witness Ed Miliband's half-hearted support for the student demonstrations before Christmas.

But there are also calls from inside the Labour leadership for it to distance itself from opposition on the streets. Shadow minister Douglas Alexander recently wrote that a successful electoral strategy for Labour "will require more than moral outrage".

But many of those looking to Labour to oppose the Tories, hit by cuts to services, job losses and the squeeze on living standards, want more outrage, not just of the moral sort but of the kind that hits back at the Tories and stops them.

Many need a response far quicker than waiting until elections in 2015. Inspired by the student revolt, they won't necessarily agree with Miliband when he says strikes "are not a way you change the government. The way you change a government is through the ballot box."

We should continually seek to draw Labour supporters into the anti-cuts movement, including MPs and local councillors where they are prepared to give any expression to opposition to the cuts. But this must be constantly combined with arguing that Labour should oppose the cuts in both words and deeds.