Labour must stop fighting the cuts

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.


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81 Responses to “Labour must stop fighting the cuts”

  1. Euclid says:

    I find it quite encouraging that the overall response to this excellent and accurate self-examination is the familiar leftie-student-meeting-shout-it-down ilk. It means that the left still do not get it, and probably never will. You will be unelectable for some time to come.

    Since 1945 every Labour government has left this country in economic ruins, often on the verge of bankrupty. The one exception was when thed did bankrupt the country and the IMF had to bail us out. Their economic vision is always the same: tax and spend until you run out of money.

    This was again typified by Gordons stint at the helm. In just over a decade he increased the tax take from £348 billion to nearly £700 billion. And yet this still was not enough to fund the profligate socialist agenda – he increased borrowing in the same period from £37 billion to nearly £100 billion BEFORE the banking crisis. Worse still, he employed over a million new public servants and fully believed his delusional bragging that there would never be a ‘bust’, and consequently no more money to pay for them.If he was such an economic genius, how is it he never studied the woefull economic incompetency of every previous Labour term, and learned from them?

    And we are. Again. Labour leaving the UK nearly bankrupt and crying about all the people who are going to lose their jobs because the nasty Tory govt cannot afford to see us drowning in more debt, and now has to clean up the stinking mess that Labour has left behind. Again.

    Perhaps a law should be enacted that ensures prison terms for politicians who leave the country on the verge of bankruptcy – I am sure it would ensure that in future 90% of the socialist agenda would hastily be consigned to the bin.

    But why would they? – socialists positively revel in wasting other peoples money until the piper comes calling – at which point they run faster than the rats in the opposite direction.

  2. I am all for efficiencies (real ones, not cuts). Parsimony is my middle name (or “tight git”, if you must). But what we are seeing from the Tories is an attempt to shrink the state, that is, to cut as many public services as they can. They tried to do the same thing in 2005, remember that? Once Letwin let the cat out of the bag the public decided that they liked having public services and did not give the Tories the chance. So why should we have fewer public services now than then?

    For the dimwitted who will answer “there is no money” I answer, of course there is. If the state is not providing essential services, it means that services users who need those services will have to pay for them out of their own pockets. The money is not magicked up from somewhere, it is moved around. Those who can afford to pay (through taxes) stop funding essential services and those who cannot afford to pay find that they have to pay or lose an essential service.

    We are seeing this in social care at the moment, people who need home helps are not getting them; because of the cuts and the freeze on Council Tax councils are not subsidising social care, and hence charges go up. This results in more people deciding that they can no longer afford to pay. In the long run it will be more expensive (without help, such people are more likely to fall and need hospital care, and more likely to go into residential care).

    Personally, I find it distasteful to suggest that Labour should “accept” the Tory cuts. You say that Labour’s opposition is ineffective, but the reason for that is that until April this year we were still on the last Darling budget allocations: the cuts had not started! we are now in the cuts period. The NHS will face a funding crisis and waiting lists will rise catastrophically, will you support the Tory cuts when we see people on trolleys in hospital corridors?

  3. haydoni says:

    @SteveRudd Mr Watt clearly said: “At the same time it reinforces another damaging *perception*…”, he wasn’t calling you, or anyone on benefits, “workshy”, he was pointing out that this may be a perception which some of the public have, and that it must be addressed/rectified before Labour can win arguments on benefit reform.

    At any rate, the main point of the article is that the Labour Party should offer an alternative, which isn’t simply “no cuts”. Currently they’ve failed to do this, even though Ed’s manifesto promised similar cuts to what the Coalition are delivering, it’s embarrassing.

  4. Michael Bater says:

    Why the hell should we be supporting cuts that have caused the economy to flat line?

  5. florian albert says:

    As somebody who turned his back on Labour long ago, after being brought up in a solidly Labour family, I read Peter Watt’s article with interest.
    Overall, I think he is correct.

    What comes across in the comments is a mindset which repels me;
    the assumption that the Tories are wicked (‘indescriminent pillage’ – David Harney);
    the belief that opponents are deranged; (‘Mr Watt inhabits a planet in a solar system orbiting the real world – Stuart)

    Were I a Tory I would be elated that the principal opposition party showed so little sign of offering an alternative and would conclude that, if only by default, the prospects for the next election are good.

  6. Fubar Saunders says:

    David Harney:

    True it is what your party stood for, as Peter Watt acknowledges. But, that is not what got you elected in 97 and two subsequent elections. Rightly or wrongly, the voting public didnt want the previous brands of democratic socialism. They effectively wanted Red Tories with a social conscience. And thats what they got.

    What Peter says in this article, like a lot of others on this site is very incisive and to an outsider has a lot of accuracy and resonates with observers like me. Much much more than the sloganeering and the cheap red-meat throwing to the far left.

    What the party has to ask itself is this. Is being elected to power at any cost to your principles the desired result, or is it attracting the vast majority of the voting public to your genuine, heartfelt, sincere way of thinking? Its getting the wrong answer to that that will cost you. As Peter says, you have to recognise where you went wrong so you dont make the same mistakes again. Mistakes cost you power for a generation, as the tories found out. Those are expensive mistakes to make.

  7. SA says:

    ‘Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.’
    And former for a reason: Watt is a man of indecent judgement and political practice. He’s certainly not someone the Labour Party ranks should be taking tips from any more.

  8. Shelly says:

    Er, what happened to holding the Government to account?

    Until I’m convinced there’s not a viable economic alternative I will oppose the Govt’s cuts tooth and nail. Your theory is nonsense; a ‘sit back and let ‘em cut’ attitude will get us nowhere. Idleness in opposition never won anyone votes.

    Public opinion undoubtedly puts as ahead – maybe the Conservatives didn’t make huge losses on the 5th, but the Lib Dems did, and they’ve undoubtedly been the scapegoat for cuts. Look again at the results of May 5th and see how the GOVERNMENT did, not just the Tories. We need to be an alternative to that if we want to win and serve public interest.

    I don’t agree with cutting libraries, school building projects, disability living allowances and legal aid and I’ll campaign against it whether the Tory-lite of Labour like it or not.
    Good luck with your cuts agenda, Peter; I hope the Party take absolutely no notice of you.

  9. Peter Watt says:

    Looks like SA isn’t a fan!

  10. Sadik Hahn says:

    “As families experience squeezed budgets, Labour defends benefits and non-jobs in councils. It isn’t fair, but it is felt.”

    Just why is this view unfair?

    Stealth taxes went through the roof under us. The 10p tax level vanished and a lot of people lost out. Non-jobs proliferated, tens of billions were/are/going to be squandered on PFI, councils spend money on themselves while ignoring road repairs, tens of thousands of jobs went overseas without a labour peep while cheap labour was imported to undercut salary levels/boost the benefit culture fuelling the race tensions I see every day.

    It is a fair view and until we get it through our skulls we made an absolute fecking mess of the economy, in opposition we shall remain

  11. Stuart says:

    Florian,

    I wouldn’t say deranged. I would say a space cadet in that he has no idea what he is on about. His strategy is quite frankly the most infantile I have ever heard. Unfortunately it is symptomatic of a mindset amongst some in the Labour Party who think that people are a walk on stage on army who will vote for them no matter what. This ain’t the case anymore and advocating standing back while the other lot ravage the economy isn’t going to win a single vote.

    For the sake of brevity ideas of an alternative can be found on the PCS and other trade union websites. Don’t kid on that people haven’t out forward an alternative when they have.

    And if the frank tone of some of the comments offends you then you really need to get out more often.

  12. john p Ried says:

    Good articel Peter, keep up the good work,Don’t let the trotskyites put these view down, they’re reinfultrating us all the time,

  13. Euclid says:

    I find it quite encouraging that the overall response to this excellent and accurate self-examination is the familiar leftie-student-meeting-shout-it-down ilk. It means that the left still do not get it, and probably never will. You will be unelectable for some time to come.
    Since 1945 every Labour government has left this country in economic ruins, often on the verge of bankrupty. The one exception was when thed did bankrupt the country and the IMF had to bail us out. Their economic vision is always the same: tax and spend until you run out of money.
    This was again typified by Gordons stint at the helm. In just over a decade he increased the tax take from £348 billion to nearly £700 billion. And yet this still was not enough to fund the profligate socialist agenda – he increased borrowing in the same period from £37 billion to nearly £100 billion BEFORE the banking crisis. Worse still, he employed over a million new public servants and fully believed his delusional bragging that there would never be a ‘bust’, and consequently no more money to pay for them.If he was such an economic genius, how is it he never studied the woefull economic incompetency of every previous Labour term, and learned from them?
    And we are. Again. Labour leaving the UK nearly bankrupt and crying about all the people who are going to lose their jobs because the nasty Tory govt cannot afford to see us drowning in more debt, and now has to clean up the stinking mess that Labour has left behind. Again.
    Perhaps a law should be enacted that ensures prison terms for politicians who leave the country on the verge of bankruptcy – I am sure it would ensure that in future 90% of the socialist agenda would hastily be consigned to the bin.
    But why would they? – socialists positively revel in wasting other peoples money until the piper comes calling – at which point they run faster than the rats in the opposite direction.

  14. Merseymike says:

    I think the response to such an article is ‘what’s the bloody point’?

    This is just a re-run of ‘lets get elected and do nothing’

    No. If we get a Labour government next time lets have one worth getting. An election victory on Tory spending plans would not enable us to do what we want or need to do.

    Of course, remember that a lot of the uber-Blairites love the coalition, seeing it as continuing the reform mania of their master

  15. Anon says:

    Being “relatively” poor in the UK means still having a playstation 2 instead of a playstation 3. Trying to get the general population to care about and pay taxes for people who are still relatively well off compared to previous generations and also compared to people in most other countries is an uphill struggle. The trouble is that if Labour abandons it, it;s not clear what the point of the party is.

  16. Merseymike says:

    It does appear that the vast majority of those who support this approach are either Tories who are hostile to the party – now, are they really those to listen to and take advice from? Or the uber-Blairites who can’t cope with the fact that their era is over and their poster boy lost the party leadership election

    I wish they would grow up – Peter, if you support the coalition’s cuts, then please do us all a favour and join one of the coalition parties.

    Does anyone Labour ever contribute an article to this site?

  17. Real Chris says:

    @Peter Watt

    As others have already asked, why would Miliband want to align himself with the political rhetoric and economic policies that has caused economic growth to flatline?

    I don’t how turning round and saying “we agree with George Osborne” will give us “permission to be heard”, more likely it will harden voters opinions that Labour don’t have a clue on the economy and give Cameron & Osborne a big stick to wave about.

  18. The Realist (unlike most of you it seems) says:

    If the comments here are anything to go by then Peter Watt’s very wise words are going to be completely ignored by the Party. So well done to all of you with your fingers in your ears whilst humming loudly, please do carry on pretending that everything is fine and that somehow, magically, the Coalition Government is going to implode and gift you power. By all means continue to imagine that you are occupying the moral high ground whilst pretending that those stupid voters don’t matter, after all winning an election and gaining power pales into insignificance when held against ideological purity and the opportunity to relive your student union sit in days.

  19. Stuart says:

    As a parting shot I find it rather ironic that some here have made their points about debt and spending money we don’t have, Labour financial incompetence, not fit to govern and so on. Presumably these ardent business types will hold the same rule to themselves and will refuse to do business with anybody who is not able to supply the full asking price up front. No more mortgages, credit cards and so on.

    As Merseymike says do us a favour Peter and join a party who is pushing through the cuts now. All he wants is to be in power, rather than using the office to better peoples lives.

  20. florian albert says:

    Stuart

    I did not say I was offended, I said that comments such as yours ‘repel’ me;
    ie drive me away and confirm my antipathy to the Labour Party, which – long ago, long before Blair – got detached from ordinary people.

    Peter Watt wrote a detailed article.
    You responded with abuse; a ‘gormless cretin’.
    Thus he won the argument.

  21. Lev says:

    As a LD Councillor (rare breed these days) may I encourage the Labour party to ignore Peter’s article – or better, ridicule it.

    This is probably the best advice I’ve seen given to the Labour party recently, and it certainly shouldn’t be followed if you want to remain in opposition.

  22. Stephen says:

    It’s one thing to say that we should not have a knee jerk reaction and oppose all cuts, given that the deficit cannot be sustained ad infinitum and yes there may be some items of public expenditure that are more suitable for cutting than others. But it is then a staggering and illogical leap to say “we should do is just accept the Tory spending plans as set out in the spending review”.

    Since we are the only Party that now professes Keynesian economics – it is quite appropriate for us to argue that cutting spending too early before growth is properly embedded will actually make it more difficult to achieve any long term reduction in the deficit. And if you want evidence for that assertion perhaps you should look at what is happening in Ireland or Greece – or what has happened in Japan in recent years.

    And Peter if you really do believe that the Tories are not highly political in deciding where the burden of cuts should fall and are not making decisions that affect our people more than their own could I suggest you look at how they have changed the allocation of the central government grants to local authorities, and then if you are happy with that perhaps the conclusion is obvious.

    Sure the Party needs a consistent and plausible narrative, which is based on what we would do when we have power – it just isn’t the one you are suggesting.

  23. The problem with this analysis is it fails to recognise why we lost the 2010 election, and why we lost so many votes in the 2005 election before that. There is a seriously flawed view in much of the party that the 2010 loss was mainly down to the economy and Gordon Brown – the reality is that the brief upswing in our poll position when Brown took over was an aberation in our declining support from the Iraq War onwards.

    Yes, the state of the economy had its role. But there is a deeper malaise: too many people who previously voted Labour felt that their party had abandonned them. It was the in-built flaw in the New Labour project: the attempt to capture middle-class votes whilst relying on working class voters having no where else to go was always a short-term fix. It delivered great majorities in 1997 and 2001 but after then our voters were questioning what Labour was donig for them.

    So the idea that we don’t side with those threatened by the cuts, that we abandon them so that we get the chattering “of-course-there-have-to-be-cuts” classes on side, is a fundamentally stupid one. Not supporting those faced with cuts is political suicide.

    Peter’s article mentions the elections on 5 May, but fails to mention the biggest warning sign for Labour: not the Tories holding position but the SNP success in Scotland. Rightly or wrongly, Scottish voters in Labour heartlands concluded that the SNP offered something closer to their values than Labour. That is because the SNP offered what looked like a viable alternative to the Coalition, whilst Labour’s message was a muddled ‘we will cut a bit more slowly than them’.

    Do the maths, Peter, we can’t win the next election without keeping our Scottish MPs.

    We need a strong message, on the lines of that which Ed Balls used in the leadership campaign, that sets out the narrative against cuts rather than meekly accepting them. Being a pale imitation of the two Tory parties in the coalition will only lead voters to opt for the real thing.

    Labour can’t win without putting forward the alternative.

  24. Euclid says:

    @Jackie South

    I see. Once again it was the stupid electorate who just could not see what and asset another five years of Labour would have been for the country. Actually Jackie what the public could see was the following:

    UK debt end 2001 : £385,5 billion
    UK debt end 2002 : £402,9 billion
    UK debt end 2003 : £441,1 billion
    UK debt end 2004 : £487,9 billion
    UK debt end 2005 : £529,4 billion
    UK debt end 2006 : £573,3 billion
    UK debt end 2007 : £618,4 billion
    UK debt end 2008 : £750,3 billion
    source ONS ….

    Thats why you lost the election.

  25. Chris says:

    Peter Watt’s contribution to the Labour party was to help the Tories by publishing a silly book with lots of snide remarks and tittle tattle designed to please the Daily Mail. Your era is over Mr Watt, if you want to be a Tory then go join them. It is you and friends who destroyed the party as you tried to fashion it as Tory party mk2.

  26. Ian smart says:

    This is an interesting piece but a bit too despairing. It is correct to say that the “osborne” cuts haven’t yet set in and that some of our campaigning (particularly on incapacity and disability benefits) is a tually campaigning against reforms we brought in while still in government!

    Such an approach simply lacks any credibility with the voters and should be left to the appropriate interest groups. You don’t have to be a died in the wool Blairite (I’m certainly not) to recognise that the next election will be decided by people who do vote and need to be won over directly from the Tories. Disillusioned lib dems are simply not enough on their own. These people comprise disproportionately private sector workers who have already felt the full force of the recession. They are not impressed by our advocacy that other groups, particularly in the public sector and among the long term workshy should be protected from that recession at THEIR expense.

    On the other hand, the Tories are cutting too far and too fast and that is harming the prospects of recovery across the whole Economy and that is a legitimate argument for us to make.

  27. Ian smart says:

    Submitted my last bit before it was finished!

    It continues. The case we need to make is for the importance of public services not public sector jobs for the sake of them. And we can also attack the gratuitous offences which only a Tory Givernment would ever contemplate, such as the means testing of ESA. Choosing our ground carefully doesn’t prevent us making the case for progressive politics or prevent us highlighting the contrast between labour and the”nasty party”. more importantly, such an approach is more likely to secure a hearing beyond the ranks of the already converted.

  28. Chris says:

    Not absolutely sure if Labour should stick to Tory spending plans, especially when they do want to shrink parts of the state, but I thought in terms of the cuts damaging us and our current approach, this piece was spot on.

  29. Lindsay says:

    This is a fantastic article that comprehensively proves the case for the unions to write off the shambling corpse of the Labour Party, irretrievably plagued as it is by a completely out of touch leadership and its reputation as the party of forcing the have-nots to pay the haves for bombs used to murder blameless foreigners, and build a UK equivalent to Die Linke.

  30. Some of the comments on here are deeply disheartening.

    Peter Watt’s point was never ‘we should concede the argument to the Tories’ but instead appreciate that our current position is unsustainable and will never win us an election. He calls for an explanation of what we would cut and what we would save – difficult choices that require honesty and a backbone to protect ourselves from the inevitable onslaught from George Osborne’s spin machine, but in the long run will regain us the trust of voters.

    I really hate the attitude of some of the commenters in this article. The Blair government and its policies was not a Labour government by, for and of the Islington Middle Classes.
    Just think – who is hit the hardest from rising crime, from an inefficient NHS, from bureaucratic public services held hostage to vested interests? It is the poorest and weakest in our society. Tony Blair’s government, while not ideologically pure from a socially democratic point of view, implemented reforming policies that helped most who ultimately the Labour Party stands for helping.

    We did crack down on anti-social behaviour. Sure, we incurred the wrath of the Guardian, but they endorsed the Lib Dems in 2010 so stuff them. The middle classes don’t need ASBOs – there are no violent or abusive neighbours in the leafy suburbs.

    Sure, we fixed the NHS, and schools. The middle classes need neither. They can afford private education or tuition and they can afford private healthcare from their employer.

    The cuts are just another example of this. Who benefits least from high government deficits? Again, not the middle classes. It is the poorest who have to eventually face cuts and increased indirect taxes – fuel duty, VAT etc.

    So to those who think Ed Milliband’s chosen path of trashing the previous, most electorally successful, longest lasting Labour governments ever, you enjoy your path to the electoral wilderness. We cocked up in England in the local elections and fucked up in Scotland. But meanwhile, we cede the electoral centre ground to the Tories, who everyday take efforts to decontaminate themselves and make themselves more palatable to the ‘struggling middle’ who hold no ideological or party political affiliation.

    At this rate our 2015 election slogan will be “soft left, soft thinking”. Either that or the Tories will buy ones for us.

  31. ?”We must stop fighting the cuts” http://t.co/1svVBYhO by @PeterWatt123
    John Macdonald The future looking side of the article is good but the idea of accepting Tory plans when the plans are enthused with their values is deeply reactionary. Gordon in his prudence days did the same and never ever created a “Labour prudence” -hence Finland saved while we wasted on things like Iraq and ridiculous doctors contracts. Far from accepting Tory plans we should criticise our own failings as a basis for the future. Of course callous inhuman murderous cuts have to be opposed. The author is obviously some policy wonk who has no streetlife… Get it … People are dying and they are encouraging so called Middle England to applaud! The author thinks of electoral politics as a ball game.. not a reality. Wherever he comes from, it is certainly not where people hurt – or if he’s been there he is squashing it down – and others with it. But he is nevertheless correct in one respect – unless Labout moves forward with vision bold and sensible and inspiring … the same old tired lost antics will continue ad nauseam and millions will say BYE BYE Politics!

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