We fell into a trap. The CSR saw us out-thought, out-spun and out-positioned. First casualty of Osborne’s cuts: the Labour party.
There will be others. Those set to lose their jobs, their benefits, their housing. We will weep for them. Some of us will march for them. Though, wisely, not our leader. We will rage at the injustice.
It will achieve nothing. Neil was right. He has got his party back. A party of protest, not influence.
Wednesday was a slow motion car crash. For months people have been warning that our failure to articulate a coherent position on deficit reduction would cost us dear. Dismissed as siren voices, they were ignored. So we drove, unblinking, into the wall.
Oh yes, there will be a reaction. The bite of the Tory cuts will prove even worse than the bark that heralded them. In the short term the polls may reflect this. Grant us comfort.
It will be false. Those Labour MPs who sat in the chamber know the truth. “It was a disaster”, said one, “they routed us”. “We haven’t got a line or a message”, said another. “The Tories have been arguing that the deficit is our fault and the cuts are necessary. And they’ve won”.
Ed Miliband’s grim face on the front bench told the story. His performance at PMQs immediately before the statement bound and embossed it. “To be honest he was awful”, said one MP who had supported him in the leadership election.
Thank God for Alan Johnson. Stuck behind the wheel when the brakes failed, he minimised the damage. But poise and humour are no substitute for a strategy or a policy. He had been sent into the chamber with neither.
Thank God, too, for the indiscipline of the Conservative back benches. Those MPs who waved their order papers resembled the mob cheering Madame Guillotine. We must remind their constituents of the roars that greeted the fall of the blade.
But we cannot ignore the fundamentals. We are the wrong side of the argument. And it is an argument that will define politics in this country for decades.
Our attempts to get to grips, in political terms, with deficit reduction have been tragi-comic. First we had the Balls plan. Then the Darling plan. Then we tried to muddle through the election with a fusion of the two. The Ballsing plan.
Post-election, it got worse. Ed dumped his own strategy for a new one. Balls Plus. Or was it Balls Lite? David Miliband tried to stick with the plan that had just taken the party of a cliff. It did the same for him. Ed Miliband, who wrote the manifesto, junked the whole lot until after the leadership election.
Which brought the Johnson plan. But was it Johnson’s plan? Ed is an economist, we’ve been told. He will have his own ideas.
Then we tried to get cute. We’ll go for deficit reduction. But different deficit reduction. Theirs will undermine growth by suppressing consumer demand through spending cuts. Ours will be achieved by tax rises. Which won’t suppress demand. Ignore the cries of the business community. What does M&S know? We will get a sensible split of cuts versus tax. 50:50. Or maybe 60:40. 70:30 at a stretch. But definitely not 80:20.
Meanwhile, the Tories have been deploying the same cold, calm message. The deficit is Labour’s fault. We will cut it. The cuts will be painful. But the cuts will be fair.
We have ignored the golden rule of opposition. Make difficult choices the government’s problem. Not yours.
In fact we’ve stopped acting like an opposition, and taken up a new line in economic Tarot reading. “The government’s plans will push us into a double dip recession” – Ed Balls. “The Government’s announcement will make a million people unemployed’ – Angela Eagle.
And what if Osborne doesn’t turn over the Grim Reaper? The economy staggers on with marginal growth. Unemployment ‘only’ goes up by half that figure. Our bold predictions will make the axe man look like a skilled surgeon.
We’ve rolled the dice. Instead of neutralising the reduction issue by aligning ourselves with the net Tory deficit level and timetable, we’ve bet the house on fiscal meltdown. Our already battered reputation for economic competence is now inversely fused to the Tories. What should have been the greatest gamble of David Cameron’s political career has become Ed Miliband’s.
Come on. We know how this game is played. Match their overall spending totals, and hit them over priorities within that framework. At the same time ensure there are no uncosted spending commitments.
What are we doing? Giving the impression we want to die in the ditch for every last Sea Harrier, millionaire’s child benefit payment and pint of student snakebite.
We have avenues of attack. The inherent unfairness in the balance of cuts is clearly one. But that will not resonate until we are seen simply and unequivocally to accept that cuts are a harsh necessity. Only 25% of the public regard our stance on the deficit as credible. Unless we bridge that gap, none of our charges will resonate.
“We’re telling people we support cuts”, one Ed advisor told me on Wednesday. Yes, but they’re not listening. And they’re not listening because while our lips are saying one thing our posture and body language are saying something else.
Ed Miliband was right. We should not be exuding indignation. We should be expressing humility. Whether the deficit was our fault or the bankers’ is politically immaterial. It happened on our watch, and in the public mind we are culpable. They told us that in the general election. We should stop trying to dispute that judgment, admit mistakes, and move on.
We should also call the Tories’ bluff. They have claimed that their cuts are actually below the level we advocated. Fine. We should accept that figure and challenge them to explain how, in that case, we are being reckless over the national debt. If they want to turn us from deficit doves into deficit hawks, let them.
Finally, we should do as Ed promised. Let’s start welcoming some of their measures. If the Tories want to build aircraft carriers without planes, why do we care? Bring the tanks back from Germany. As Tory grandees march through the lobbies, beating Britannia’s swords into overseas development grants, we should line the lobbies chorusing “this way for weak defence”.
On Wednesday we were crushed. It was humiliating. But we have still only lost the first battle. The war against the cuts will go on. It will be one of attrition. Fought yard by yard. Next time we make contact our generals must be ready. Our enemy will take no prisoners.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.