John Woodcock finds glimmers of hope amid the grey

And so we charge on into the new landscape. It is cold and bleak. And it is dominated by the comprehensive spending review.

While I am not as pessimistic as some Uncut contributors (you, Dan Hodges) about how the announcement played out last week, we shouldn’t for a moment think it was a good week for the Labour party, or, more importantly, for the country.

Even accounting for a little slanting of questions and selective reporting of the answers, the YouGov poll in last week’s Sun was sobering. Taken after the CSR announcement, it suggested that 47 per cent of respondents blamed the last Labour government for the programme of cuts compared to 17 per cent who blamed the Tory-Lib Dem coalition that is making them, and 20 per cent who cast a plague on both our houses. Sure, respondents didn’t get the option to blame the bankers – but even accounting for that bias, the figures suggest that the Tory message machine is having some considerable success.

Michael Dugher is right, of course, that we must not let ministers cement the idea that the Conservative prescription is as inevitable and necessary in 2010 as people have come to believe it was in 1979.

Alan Johnson’s manner of countering this relentless propaganda was one of the causes for optimism among the gloom last week.

There was nothing strikingly new in Alan’s two basic points that: a) this financial situation was not simply caused by a spendthrift Labour government; and b) cutting on this scale will make things worse, not better. But the message was communicated in a way that gave hope, for the first time in a long time, that some of it might actually sink in.

That is not to denigrate Alistair Darling, whose presence in the top team is going to be very sorely missed. But the guy who was in the economic hot seat when we lost an election is always going to struggle to break through, particularly in a period when all focus was on contrasting the then economic visions of the leadership candidates.

Coming from the home office, Alan simply does not have that baggage, and his charismatic ability to tell it straight and simple is unparalleled. He is exactly what we need right now.

Another cause for hope is the exposure of flaws in the man who is doing so much to drive forward this period of Conservative hegemony. One of George Osborne’s colleagues told me last week that he was concerned that the chancellor might run into trouble because he looks to have absorbed some of the dubious arts of presentation that he used to deride, fairly or otherwise, when he faced Gordon Brown at the despatch box.

There was the crude expectations management played out in the press: some groups who got a terrible deal last week were actually fairly upbeat because they believed they had been spared even greater carnage predicted in the newspapers. Then there were the claims about protected budgets in certain areas that look highly dubious under scrutiny.

We shouldn’t get carried away – the manner in which a 30 per cent budget cut is presented to the nation is somewhat less important than the effect it has on the ground. But it does matter. The relatively easy ride in the media for Messrs Osborne and Cameron is likely to continue for some time. But a public and press who have come to believe, fairly or unfairly again, that they were occasionally taken for a ride by Labour will ultimately take a dim view of someone who routinely tries to manipulate them.

The manner in which we stand up for people who are going to suffer terribly in the years to come is going to be critically important. As will be our success in setting out the economic folly of cuts on a scale that will damage our growth rate, needlessly hurt people trying to get on, and irrevocably damage key national capabilities.

But even more important will be the vision we set out when the cuts have happened. If the new government has its way, we will be going into the election with a balanced budget and the state withdrawn from many areas that taxpayers currently support.

We can point out that the country and public finances would have been in better shape had we cut more carefully, prioritising jobs and growth instead of allowing the UK economy to bump along the bottom.

But once the damage has been done, that will be part of our analysis of the Tories’ record. It won’t answer the question of what we would do to put it right.

At that point, the British people are going to ask us what route we would take to make the country better, and listen seriously to the directions we give them. We can’t simply tell them that we shouldn’t be starting from here.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness.

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11 Responses to “John Woodcock finds glimmers of hope amid the grey”

  1. Dan Hodges says:

    …Oh, I can be much more pessimistic. That was me on a good day…

  2. John, you are wise to think backwards from the next election. The big economic choice for Labour will be whether to take the New Labour approach fondly remembered on our blog today – reducing debt further, spending the proceeds on investment in public services in a sustainable way – or to follow the path of the mid-noughties, losing the grip on debt, borrowing more to spend quickly. The second path will be hugely tempting, building a coalition through spending promises. The first path is responsible – and won elections.

  3. This is fine, but we don’t control the narrative any more. The shadow cabinet can put forward whatever message it likes, but a vast amount of people, including the overwhelming majority of the 47 percent, simply won’t hear it.

    Some of that is because we aren’t in government and therefore policy our announcements garner less attention and can’t be put into action, so they’re less well-reported. And some of that is because they won’t be ready to listen until the Tories have screwed up.

    So I’m afraid we have lost the argument already. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put up a rearguard action, but in the minds of the public the last recession was Labour’s fault. That can’t be changed effectively. We’re now battling to convince the historians. And whilst that does matter in a hegemonic sense, that won’t win us any elections in the next few decades.

    There are some ways we can get noticed, of course. A few of them might even get us some good press. Not many, but a few.

    Longer-term, it could be worth producing some approximation of that shadow spending review that we said we weren’t going to do. Something to kill the idea we don’t have a policy on the deficit. We’ve got enough people with governmental experience to be able to shift the numbers round a little, cut a little more here and a little less here, up the bank tax – is there really any downside to beating up on them a little more, especially when party funding rules are going to be tightened up? – and try to make room for a few eye-catching bits of economic stimulus, like Balls’ plan for extra-housebuilding.

    That said, the numbers might show that it’s not worth it, even if we use the Darling model, because the cuts are simply too hard to be appetising to voters.

    The other thing to do is to concentrate on the badly designed cuts. Contradictory ones, ones which create a huge marginal tax rate, ones that directly contradict supposed coalition policy and just plain heinous ones. Set up a schedule. Two days for attacking each one. Hope one of those catches fire and becomes the new 10p tax rate.

    Aside from that, I don’t really see what we can do, because it’s usually governments that lose elections, not oppositions that win them, and they simply haven’t had time to mess up enough for us to seize control of the narrative.

  4. paul barker says:

    Does it occur to any of you that 47% blame Labour because Labour are to blame ?

  5. John Eastwood says:

    “We shouldn’t get carried away – the manner in which a 30 per cent budget cut is presented to the nation is somewhat less important than the effect it has on the ground. But it does matter.”

    Maybe it would be as well not to get carried away talking about budget cuts of around 10-15% bigger than they really are then?

  6. Well, if Labour had invested heavily in credit default swaps, that would explain why the party is heavily indebted.

    But no, I haven’t really considered that possibility. Because it’s a moronic Tory over-simplification/distortion.

  7. Ben Shimshon says:

    Great article John. I agree that there’s a massive advantage from using a spokesperson who has less baggage and AJ also offers a tone of voice which is clearly different from that of past labour economic analysis. The next step is to develop an analysis of the situation that can challenge the insidious “kitchen logic” that the Tories are using. The comparison with household budgets is v powerful because it chimes with voters’ own common sense. We need to find a way to puncture that analysis. It should be intuitive that national economies are not the same as household budgets and anyone who treats them that way is guilty of a massive over-simplification.

  8. Being the main party of opposition and not having a comprehensive, detailed response to the coalition government’s CSR announcement is akin to, and as ludicrous as, being in government, and building a couple of aircraft carriers without any aircraft….it would never, should never, could never happen.


  9. AnneJGP says:

    Since I am an outsider looking in, I hope you’ll find my comments constructive.

    1) You could perhaps be a little more careful of the words you use, even when addressing your own supporters as you are here. “Another cause for hope is the exposure of flaws in the man who is doing …” sounds far too much as though you’d be pleased about smears.

    2) I am a would-be Labour voter. I’m afraid I believe that the previous Labour government routinely tried to manipulate people and I do take a very dim view of it indeed.

    3) I applaud efforts to stand up for people who are going to be suffering terribly. Unfortunately, defending CBs for HRTs has rather devalued your “suffering terribly” coinage.

    4) By the time people do start listening to you again, Labour needs to have re-built its credibility. Labour can only do this by building up a track record of telling the truth – starting now.

    Further to Ben’s point, I am one of those who believes whole-heartedly in the common sense of “kitchen logic”. Oldpolitics & I had an exchange about it on Michael Dugher’s article (linked in the OP above).

    Whilst accepting that the analogy doesn’t scale up in many ways, I believe that the principles of good stewardship are fundamental to all our dealings at whatever level.

    Fundamental principles can be transposed up & down, across & sideways, without either over-simplifying or over-generalising.

    Ben calls for an analysis that “overcomes” voters’ common sense. Say, rather, one that “enlarges” common sense. If I come across an analysis that convinces me, I shall be only too happy to embrace the larger ideas.

  10. @AnneJGP – why do you embrace the ‘kitchen logic’ argument? As you say, it doesn’t scale up.

    Whilst it makes sense for a family to reduce outgoings, an economy depends on consumption, so if an economy reducing outgoings (which inevitably reduces consumption) then the economy suffers.

    Economies and households are very different things, because we’re fortunate enough not to live in the days when a state had a population of 5,000 or less.

    I can accept that the idea of ‘principle of good stewardship’ is appropriate, but I don’t understand why that has to mean behaving as if the state was a household. It’s not – the state has much more earning power and is harder to foreclose on, so it can sustain more debt.

  11. AnneJGP says:

    @Edward, what I’m embracing is common sense. As Ben says, the “kitchen logic” argument chimes with that.

    Politically committed people of whatever persuasion have their approved economic model(s) to guide their judgment of what represents good stewardship at government level. People like myself don’t.

    Those who engage in this topic with real understanding are far more intelligent & well-educated than I am. I’m neither stupid nor ill-educated, but however hard I try to understand this topic, both sets of diametrically opposed claims sound equally plausible to me.

    So, the only measure within my grasp of what represents good stewardship at government level is what chimes with common sense.

    On the other thread, oldpolitics said, “The household analogy is politically powerful … but an economic nonsense, for all sorts of reasons.”

    Nonsense it may well be; I have no way of knowing. I don’t doubt your good faith, but you do lack an analogy that brings your interpretation of good stewardship at government level within the reach of common sense.

    If you cannot appeal to common sense, then your only recourse is an appeal to trust, or blind faith. I can only add that it takes a huge amount of faith & trust to overcome what one’s common sense is saying.

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