by Peter Watt
We need to recognise, quickly, that the Labour party is being damaged by the cuts. For the last year the conventional wisdom has been that the cuts would politically damage the Tories and Lib Dems. Massive downturns of popularity would rattle the two parties’ collective nerves. Across the country, activists would be battered by a public baying for their blood.
But it hasn’t happened.
On the contrary, the Tories preformed strongly on May 5. They won seats, with their share of the vote holding up pretty well. Of course, the Lib Dems are different, they were wounded as some of their supporters punished them for breaking pre-election promises. But the uncomfortable truth is that the Labour party is also being badly damaged by the cuts.
How so? Because the Labour party is obsessed with the cuts. It is us, not the Tories, who are being defined by them. We talk about them all the time. We protest against them, predict the horrors that will unfold as their impact is felt and condemn the government for implementing them. We are so completely stuck in the cuts’ headlights, that we are virtually paralysed. And this paralysis is damaging our prospects for the next election.
It is damaging because instinctively we quite like opposition: placards, protesting, condemning and all that. Of course we say that we hate opposition and the enforced political impotence. But in reality it‘s not true. We understand the importance of being in government and the good that we can do when we control the levers of power. But it is the politics of protest that really stirs our collective soul.
It plays to our prejudices. “Heartless Tories”, doing what we know that they like doing: cutting public services. It allows us to have a great time “organising against the cuts”. Even better that they are supported by those two-faced Lib Dems, because we can also slag them off for good measure. Condemning Tories and Lib Dems, business and pleasure. Perfect. Best of all, it confirms what we all know. That we are right, that we know best and that we can sit on the moral high ground, where we like it. How can anyone defend slashing children’s services? It’s immoral. What about cutting social security benefits? Only total scumbags would countenance that. Certainly not us. We are trying to stop all of that, and as a result we feel good about ourselves.
The problem is that in the real world people don’t think like that. We are still blamed for the economic mess. Many voters think that we overspent when we should have been saving. They know that the banking crisis was a disaster and that bankers are in it for themselves. But they also think that we were as well. Every fiddled expense confirms it. So they look at our opposition to cuts and find it slightly rum. And who can blame them? For many voters, our vociferous opposition to the cuts reinforces our perceived economic incompetence. But worse, in their eyes it also makes us look cynical, as we seem unable to take responsibility for, and deal with, the consequences of the mess that we caused. Typical politicians.
At the same time it reinforces another damaging perception, namely that we are a party that supports the workshy rather than those who strive. As families experience squeezed budgets, Labour defends benefits and non-jobs in councils.
It isn’t fair, but it is felt. And we can’t see it. We know that we are right to oppose the cuts. Because the cuts are bad, the voters are wrong. And then we try and mount an economic argument about the speed of the cuts being the issue. But we don’t seem to have noticed that no one is listening to us on the economy, because they blame us for the mess.
But it doesn’t need to be like this. We need to move on, and fast. Perceptions of the party are being formed and reinforced in people’s minds right now. Perceptions will only slowly change and it is these perceptions, rather than detailed policy, that will determine where votes are cast at the next general election. But in order to move on we need to stop fighting the cuts. We can’t actually stop them, as we don’t have the votes. And the very act of fighting them is hurting our electoral prospects. We feel better in the short term but no one else, apart from our opponents, benefits from our opposition.
Whatever we do, it shouldn’t be half-hearted. Saying that we support a few cuts here and there has not worked. So the first thing that we should do is just accept the Tory spending plans as set out in the spending review. We might not like them, but in reality we can do nothing about them. It would be bold and brave and, at a stroke, we will give ourselves permission to be heard again on the economy. Instead of deficit reduction strategy (and cuts) we can talk about our priorities for government as opposed to theirs. We can talk about innovative ways to stimulate growth and enterprise. We can talk about how we would develop modernised, leaner public services that are responsive to the needs of a changing world. In other words, we could start talking about the future rather than been held hostage by our economic past.
But firstly we need to accept that our approach to the cuts is badly hurting our chances of being re-elected. And we need to accept it pretty quickly. Or we will lose the next election.
Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.