Nobody should underestimate the Labour leadership’s will to win the next British General Election, which should be in May 2015. I have been away for a couple of weeks. Before I left I was wondering what Labour’s response would be to the current government’s public spending review for 2015/2016, which will be announced later this week. It has been clear and unequivocal: they will sign up to the deep cuts in public spending that this review is designed to produce. This is breath-taking. What does it mean for British politics?
The spending review looked like a trap being set by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition for Labour. Ambitious targets for savings were set: but Labour would be left with an awkward choice. Up until now Labour has been quite happy to ride the anti-cuts anger. Public sector workers, and many people relying on benefits, and others in the general ecosystem which they inhabit, are livid. Many workers with young families and mortgages are losing their jobs and facing steep cuts in pay. This anger has been fuelled by a myth: that cutbacks in public expenditure were unnecessary and motivated by Tory ideology, with the treacherous Lib Dems meekly giving in so that they can play with the toys that being in government gives them. This myth seemed to be supported by a whole army of economists saying that the pace of the governments austerity policies was undermining growth and making things worse. The Labour leader Ed Miliband and the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls did not quite subscribe to this view if you read their words carefully. But they dog-whistled full support. Every cut was opposed angrily; they used the slogan “too far, too fast”, and mercilessly criticised the government for the negligible rate of growth in the economy, which they put down to its austerity policies. There was a studied vagueness about what they would actually do themselves.
But the 2015/16 expenditure review presented a challenge. According to the anti-cuts movement, the best thing would be to reject it out of hand, promise to reverse the cuts in large measure, so as to stimulate the economy and set off a virtuous circle of growth that would restore government finances and get the economy back to where it was in 2008, before the bankers’ sabotage act and global crisis got started. But if Labour did this, or even if they continued with the ducking and weaving, they would be open to a counterattack: Labour will put up your taxes. And the signs are that most people do not accept the anti-cuts narrative, and are hard-pressed financially – so not in generous mood when it comes to tax rises. No doubt the memory of 1992 haunts Labour’s leaders, when Labour lost a very winnable election after the Tories attacked them in the last week with a campaign based on “Labour’s tax bombshell” by hyping up the vaguenesses in Labour’s plans. But signing up to the coalition’s cuts would be hard too. It makes the manufactured anger about their impact difficult to sustain. Many of their supporters will feel betrayed.
But sign up to the coalition’s plans, with a bit of trimming here and there, is exactly what Labour have done. First in a speech by Mr Balls, and then this weekend by Mr Miliband himself. The message in the media has been very clear. I don’t know how it is going down in Labour’s activist base. Polly Toynbee, who often rallies to the anti-cuts cause, seems be showing resigned acceptance, while hoping than the party will come up with other ideas that will motivate the left. It isn’t exactly a U-turn. The narrative is that the economy, after the coalition’s poor management, is now so weak it cannot support more spending. This is weak fare indeed, and only shows that Labour had in reality accepted the bulk of the coalition’s austerity plans, subject to really very minor variations (like a temporary VAT cut).
The political calculation is clear. The angry brigade have nowhere else to go than Labour. Lib Dems may feel vindicated by Labour’s stance, but their previous public sector supporters will still not forgive them, except maybe in hard-fought marginal seats where they are up against the Tories. Britain’s two party electoral system means that elections are won by wooing floating voters. And these seem convinced by the case for austerity, even if, like Ms Toynbee, you blame this on the relentless right-wing press and the TV coverage that tamely follows in its wake.
The battle ground for the 2015 election is getting clearer. It won’t be about whether there should be cuts, but on where they should fall. For somebody like this blogger who accepts the basic logic of austerity economics in the UK, that should take the political debate into interesting and constructive territory. But others will feel disenfranchised and betrayed. Things are warming up.