Comment: How did Labour spend a week about HSBC arguing over window cleaners?

By James Hutchinson

Whenever a politician declares that we 'should' do something, they'll be held to that standard; the slightest deviation will be met with cries of hypocrite. So moralising MPs need to watch out – or it's the political equivalent of the traffic warden parked on double-yellow lines.

When Ed Balls said that everyone "should" ask for receipts, it wasn't just the nonsense of what he was saying which was frustrating, although that was a problem. It's obviously not my responsibility to make sure someone else is paying tax. It was also inevitable he'd fail by his own standards. Unless he has a storage locker of receipts, obsessively alphabetised, Balls was going to have erred at least once. And The Daily Mail duly dug up his window cleaner – who Balls hadn't asked a receipt from in years, apparently.

Labour inevitably cry foul at this sort of journalism, suggesting it's one-sided campaigning from a right wing press which distorts what was originally said. They may be right – Balls was talking about cash and he pays his window cleaner by cheque, thereby creating a paper trail, making tax avoidance harder and riskier. But the fact that I've had to write those words – an actual sentence typed by my own fingers for a respected political website about a senior politician's £12 a month window cleaning bill – shows just how much Labour have been sucked into the long grass.

There are many people who think Labour's election strategy is off-piste: if anything puts the case for the prosecution it’s that Labour has made front page headlines about double glazing and some bloke in West Yorkshire who cleans them. It was self-generated – it was Balls who started the narrative.

Tax has proved a thorny issue for Labour

Much of what Labour does appears to be upside down and back to front. A ground breaking new corporation tax policy? Of course not – let's have a big public row with the boss of Boots instead. A clear statement that everyone, including those working for cash, should pay their taxes? No – a decree that all citizens should do more paperwork! Which of these is going to win votes?

Of course some of their current travails is anti-Labour bias and a perennial (and bizarre) determination by some parts of the press to support the Tories. But however aggrieved Labour's high command is about the Daily Mail et al, there needs to be a realisation that at least some of this is self-inflicted.

Labour continue their determination to fight a general election campaign not on what they're for, but on what they're against – coupled with an apparently insatiable desire to get sucked into the minutiae of everyday life. It's a terrible general election strategy (or lack thereof), and if Labour fails to win a majority (or workable minority) on May 7th it will be one of the main reasons why.

The release of the HSBC 'names' was a political gift for Miliband and team – an open goal. After a week of damaging stories about Labour’s 'anti-business' attitude, the heat was back on the Tories. But the ball has gone over the bar. We're in the weeds, talking about the Milibands' property sales and Ed Balls' window cleaner.

In the spirit of my own argument, I'll end on a positive note. It's easy to criticise Labour. But what should they do? It’s simple: quit the negative politics and come up with some policies. Labour's instincts on tax and big business, however misguided it can be, chime with a large swathe of the electorate. It will win support – but people ultimately vote for policies, not politics.

James Hutchinson is a commentator and communications expert

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