How Labour has misread voters on the deficit

by Atul Hatwal

On Tuesday, Ed Miliband did what should have been a good thing.

His speech on the need for a more active industrial policy was rooted in common sense. Ideas like a British bank tasked with expanding business lending are widely supported. And it was a neat idea to back an existing campaign by British manufacturers for a “made in Britain” label.

Although sceptics will always roll their eyes at a buy British campaign, the politics were right. Identifying the party with a business led initiative that had lots of businesses ready to talk positively about the proposal is a world away from “predators and producers”.

The government did their bit too, issuing a rebuttal comment that talked about the need for global trade and international business. The dividing line could not have been clearer – Labour backing British business while the government opened the next round of GATT negotiations with the public.

But despite receiving as warm a reception as he has enjoyed for an economic policy speech, what thanks did Ed Miliband get? Minutes after the applause he was fighting off a baying mob on Radio 5 live.

It was impossible not to feel sorry for him. The leader offered the usual platitudes about the scale of the task facing Labour, building up support slowly and getting a warm reception up and down the country. But it was just chaff.

What Ed Miliband reaped was in part the inevitable result of Labour’s economic strategy.

The last election was lost on the deficit. The electoral challenge for this parliament: which party is most trusted to reduce it.

In a way, Labour has understood this and developed a strategy that does indeed address the deficit.

Every press release issued by the economic team is rigorously consistent. The headline is almost always about poor growth with a clear causal link made in the story between growth, unemployment, reduced tax revenues and a worsening deficit.

Great. Job done, right?


Regardless of the economic validity of this approach, it fundamentally misunderstands why voters turned away from Labour.

The deficit is not seen as a problem that just arrived from outer space which now has to be solved. It was caused by someone: Labour.

The polling on culpability for the problem has barely moved since the election. The latest YouGov poll that asked the relevant question was last week with the response that 36% of the public hold the last Labour government solely responsible for the cuts, 25% the current government and 27% both.

Labour’s motivation on spending is what voters utterly mistrust. It’s all very well talking about growth as the best way to tackle the deficit, the public understand that, but unless the perception of profligacy can be shifted, voters fear a Labour government’s version of Brewster’s Millions will tip the economy back into the abyss.

Given this level of blame, the chosen strategy has totally failed to demonstrate the primary quality voters want to see from the Labour party – spending restraint.

Since Ed Miliband reshuffled his shadow cabinet in early October, the Labour party has issued 830 press releases. Out of these, there have been just two on spending restraint. Two.

In terms of Labour’s media effort since this shadow cabinet was appointed, the party has devoted 0.25% of its output to tackling the reason we lost the last election.

The two press releases came in January, like buses, when Ed Miliband and Ed Balls gave speeches on public sector pay restraint a couple of days apart.

But since then, not a squeak.

At the heart of Labour’s strategy is a chasm where some words and actions on reining in expenditure are meant to go.

Having a hole in the middle of your product might work if you are marketing a mint or a doughnut, but it makes less sense when trying to construct a viable economic alternative.

And because the party has failed to address voters’ fundamental concerns, we have been tuned out of the economic debate.

This is why, despite almost eighteen months of “too far, too fast”, the party has not just failed to make progress, we’ve actually lost ground.

Last Sunday brought a pivotal result in the polling. One of the intermittent questions asked by YouGov is whether voters prioritise action on the deficit or growth.

In last Sunday’s results, 38% agreed with the proposition that the government should stick to its current strategy of reducing the deficit, even if growth remains slow while 34% agreed with the statement that the government should change its strategy to concentrate on growth even if this means the deficit stays longer or gets worse.

For the first time, voters’ had prioritised tackling the deficit, and by a clear margin of 4%. In comparison when the question was last asked in late November, the numbers choosing growth had led by 1%.

This shift is the legacy of not being in the economic game. As a party we’ve not got past square one with voters.

Ed Miliband’s monstering by the mob was the inevitable result of our terminal loss of economic credibility. Beyond questions about his  personal style, the lack of policy substance on the issue that matters most to voters is what truly diminishes a leader.

And all because of a simple misunderstanding.

On the deficit, the public aren’t particularly interested in Labour’s rational economic proposals for growth. They want emotional reassurance that what they see as the cause of the problems won’t happen again.

Until the party is prepared to offer that, the leader’s team had best cancel any more of those events with a live audience.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut

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29 Responses to “How Labour has misread voters on the deficit”

  1. John P Reid says:

    God article, ~Without Apologising Ed should in all but words Admit that he should have said this 18minths ago,

  2. We should be campaigning hard to show economic situation and cuts programme stems from a global situation Global Financial Crash (GFC) 2007/8 not Labour Party mismanaging the economy when in government. Cuts programme so deep and so fast is not the answer. Just look at Greece.

  3. Nick says:

    You are in just as much a state of denial as Milliband.

    The issue isn’t deficit. The issue is debt.

    Since you only admit to 1/7th of the debts, you just in cuckoo land.

    Without admitting and owning up to the 7 tn of government debt, you don’t know if growth will be sufficient to solve the problem. It won’t.

  4. Nick says:

    For example. Why don’t you poll the electorate and say, look the average family has 225,000 pounds of government debt to pay off, rising with inflation. 9K last year alone.

    Then ask them, what they are going to do to pay it off.

    I suspect you will get a different answer from a 4% in favour of cuts over more debts.

  5. gracie says:

    Have you stopped to think that perhaps the 5 Live “mauling” you describe was stacked listeners? I tried to get on that programme several times and was turned down, I was asked if I supported Miliband, so make of that what you will.

    You also seem to be hung up on YG polls, I wouldn’t worry too much about them, if you don’t like one done’t worry another giving a completely different view will come along soon after.

    What Labour did wrong was to hold a ridiculously long leadership campaign and s allow the Tories to plane the fault for the global economic recession at Labour’s door.

    Articles like this don’t help either, this blog constantly undermines anything Ed and Labour does.

  6. Kathy says:

    Yet another anti-Labour article from within the ranks.

    Please stop.

    Labour supporters should be rallying together not slashing each other from within & unless you stop this kind of nonsense, Labour will always be looking backwards to see which member is going to attack next.

    Ed is doing a good job & polls are now beginning to reflect that – yougov that you seem so concerned with have put Labour ahead all week.

  7. paul barker says:

    Perhaps theres something else happening too, look at politics “in the street” over the last year.
    Strikes against pension changes – damp squib
    Student occupations – fizzled out
    Occupy everything – a flop
    Mass rally to save the NHS – 2,000 attended & thats according to the organisers.

    Perhaps your version of the left ( THe Left, in your language) has run out of road ?

  8. Jasmine Merryweather says:

    Unless and until the Labour Party identify the malignant hand of Brown as being behind much of our current debt and the equally malignant (but somewhat more personable) hand of Blair as being responsible for global death and despair they will remain unelectable. To be unelectable when the opposition is Cameron and Clegg and their financial sector puppeteers is incompetence at the very least.

    From the moment Brown arrived and sold off our gold reserves to fund spending he wanted but could not pay for, to his expansion of inventive accounting methods, and a rightly deserved reputation for devious tax rises, the path was set for UK PLC to borrow against our future – a future we increasingly do not have. We have nothing to offer that cannot be obtained better, cheaper & quicker elsewhere. It is difficult to see where our children will obtain the wherewithal to service the debts that are Brown’s legacy. It was his Treasury and he either condoned the policies they produced or instigated them. He is far too intelligent to not have seen them. I am sure that the debt wave that crashed over us from the US sub prime market and other Ponzi schemes took many by surprise but it had been widely anticipated even if its full consequences had not. Regardless of Global Banking issues, under the watch of Brown the country borrowed and spent more than it could afford. It was therefore his fault and the Labour Party should admit and indicate how they will ensure it cannot happen again. Brown indebted our future but he has was not directly responsible for the decisions to kill over 400 servicemen in Afghanistan and nearly 180 in Iraq out of a desire to cosy up to the US Administration. The casualty cost to the local populations of those countries is immeasurable.

    Blair must take responsibility for those actions. The justifications seem more tenuous with each day that passes. Let us be clear. Blair took us into 2 wars for no benefit to this country. This country has lost hundreds of servicemen and women. This country now has thousands of maimed, blinded & brain damaged ex-servicemen. All their families are now paying the cost of Blair portraying himself as a master politician, a world leader, a colossus bestriding the globe bringing resolution. It was all an ego trip for Blair. He should hang his head and apologise but he will never do so. But the Labour Party can revisit history and say that Blair was wrong and that the wars were wrong and the policy of sending our troops into the deserts of the world to be maimed and killed has not saved the life of a single person in this country.

    The goverments of Blair and Brown are now synonymous with greed and dishonesty and expenses claims. Although the Labour Party were not the biggest pigs in the trough it was on their watch when it came to light and it was their government which attempted to surpress investigation.

    They also rightly gained the reputation as a ‘Nanny knows Best’ administration where they did not need to be questioned on their activities and where the little ordinary citizens did not need to concern themselves with what the ‘Adults’ in government were doing because it was all for our good.

    The words ‘Dishonest and Arrogant’ are therefore written through the heart of the last Labour administration and unless or until that issue is addressed by the current labour leadership the wounds cannot heal.

    Politicians do not deserve to be in power. They must be honest, have credible strategies and deliver what they promise. If they make mistakes it is better to apologise sooner rather than much, much later. Three years will go by very quickly.

  9. Albrait says:

    Totally agree with all that Gracie said. This site, sadly enough, is well known for articles that undermine the Labour party leadership so can only assume that the party is doing better than some had hoped.

  10. BenM says:


    “The issue isn’t deficit. The issue is debt.”

    No it isn’t.

    The issue is growth.

    Debt becomes an issue when growth is killed off by ludicrous fiscal policy.

    Debt is fine – and we’re talking the national debt rather than irrelevant liabilities like PFI and pensions – so long as it can be serviced by sustainable income.

    At the moment, we don’t have that sustainability because Osborne is fast bludgeoning the economy’s tax base.

    Osborne has no hope of closing any deficit, let alone the made up structural one. He can’t muster the growth required as he’s so totally undermined demand. And there’s a long way to go in this current cutting programme.

    The cuts are a one way street to financial disaster and hopefully a 2015 ejection from office for this failing government.

  11. Albert Hall says:

    Jasmine I could not have put it better myself.

  12. Matt says:

    The religious cult known as the Mormons has a special phrase when they wish to stop criticism of any of their priesthood leaders. It is: “Do not speak ill of the Lord’s anointed.”

    Kathy said: “Yet another anti-Labour article from within the ranks.

    Please stop.

    Labour supporters should be rallying together not slashing each other from within & unless you stop this kind of nonsense, Labour will always be looking backwards to see which member is going to attack next.”

    Yes, Kathy. Best not “speak ill of the Lord’s anointed, hey?

  13. CKN says:

    Two good articles – the original and Jasmine’s comment. The malignity at the heart of the party is Ed Balls. He assumes the electorate are stupid. He is wrong. As long as you have that guy anywhere near a shadow cabinet you will never win an election. he is, in very great measure, responsible for the fiscal predicament we are in. How you could have lost Darling – who had a pretty good grasp of what was going on – and kept Balls is quite beyond me. But Balls fixed that. Too bad, you’re stuck with him.

  14. Private Shultz says:

    Well said Jasmine!

    Also worth noting that the bulk of the press hacking/police corruption allegations also relate to this period. It’s all very well Tom Watson, Chris Bryant and Lord Prescott getting all righteous about it now – where were they when it was happening?

  15. Anon E Mouse says:

    BenM represents what is wrong with Labour activists. It’s why the party is tanking in the polls.

    This article accurately reports the current situation where the Labour Party is completely out of touch with normal people – if it wasn’t then Ed Miliband wouldn’t be it’s leader.

    Along with immigration, Europe and the support for a benefits culture Labour just do not get it and are unelectable because of that.

    BenM answers a question that no one is asking – it is the unsustainable nature of the public sector that has got out of control when people are employed through the tax avoiding Guardian as “Outreach Five-A-Day Fruit & Veg Coordinators” then the world has gone mad.

    Like the unacceptable payments of Child Benefit to multi millionaires, Winter Fuel Allowance to ex-pats or Housing Benefits to greedy landlords, normal Labour voters feel exactly the same and the sooner BenM and others with unpopular views join a party like Socialist Worker the better.

    Labour has been hijacked by a bunch stupid activists and rich toffs like Polly Toynbee and Harriet Harman and the sooner the real working class are properly represented the better…

  16. Mike Homfray says:

    But the party isn’t ‘tanking’ in the polls. We are 5% ahead and well ahead of where we were in 2010

    Simply changing your position to what the electorate claim to think at any one time is a mistake. You’ll get caught out as a phoney.

    Fortunately Ed Miliband realises that, and a staged and packed radio programme where callers actually had very little to say about policy and claimed to be Labour whilst disliking our leader and everything we stand for – now, I couldn’t possibly think of anywhere else like that!

    Go and join the Tories, given that you largely accept their arguments.

  17. BenM says:

    Despite the assumptions of Labour-Uncut’s authors, Labour was never going to be 12-15 points ahead in the polls at this stage in the parliament.

    Given the scale of the financial crash, which occurred while New Labour were in office, it was always going to take some time to regain trust in its economic competence. The same distrust dogs the Republicans in the US.

    That is not the same thing as Tories having economic “credibility” though. Being ahead in the supplementary polling with a lukewarm lead is hardly a resounding endorsement.

    One of the greatest deceptions played on the electorate is an idea that somehow the Tories get away blameless for the 2008 crash, despite the architecture of the economy – over-reliance on financial services, crushing of manufacturing and engineering, letting the rich dodge their tax obligations – reflecting the model they set up in the 1980s.

    We forget just how catatonic and useless Cameron and Osborne were in those days before and after Lehmans went under. Which is a shame, because their hilarious goldfish impression at the time was a good pointer for just how useless their economic and fiscal management would turn out to be 3 1/2 years later.

  18. Steve says:

    Debts by Brown? Well that is how the Tories like to put it and the Tory supporting press. Before the crash the country was doing ok and even the Tory Party promised to continue with Labours spending plans. There was no grumble from the Tory Party about public spending then either. We all should know that if the banks hadn’t failed then the deficit and debt of the country would not be an issue now because it was the very collapse of the financial sector that has caused this, and really I think most in the know people really do know the truth. For political reasons it is good to blame Brown or Blair or both because it gives political weight for what the Tories are doing.

    If the Tories were in power at the time the crash, deficit and debt would have still happened and this is something that is not likely to be admitted.

  19. GSilver says:

    Kathy said: “Yet another anti-Labour article from within the ranks.”

    How on earth do we get the electorate (remember them) on the side of labour if labour refused to accept that running the country on the never never was a bleeding stupid idea. We will NEVER be fully trusted with the economy again and when we get back in be it this or next election … should we louse the finances up again, the electorate who pay (and pay and pay) tax – over 55% of their salaries for basic rate after VAT duty income NI council and stealth – will never vote red again and frankly we will not deserve their votes.

  20. swatantra says:

    Many listeners were probaby just asking themselves :Who is this Ed Milliband?
    And: This must be the weakest Shadow Cabinet Front Bench lineup since time immemorial.

  21. GSilver says:

    Steve says: “If the Tories were in power at the time the crash, deficit and debt would have still happened and this is something that is not likely to be admitted.”

    yet again you arent accepting we did it! US! NOT ANYONE ELSE. Perhaps you are right but they didnt do it WE DID!
    We spent too much. We committed to spend more than was coming in not just in one year but for all future years as well. And now we refuse to admit it. We refuse to admit that we’ll have to cut spending as well. We refuse. We Deny. We have our heads in the sand claiming its nothing to do with us.
    Just where is that going to get us?

  22. Hal says:

    This is all about framing. To accept that the deficit is the main issue is to accept the framing of our opponents.

    It is not the main issue. No-one outside of politics worries about the deficit. People worry about their job security, their income, their pension, and paying off their own debts. We need to be talking about those issues, not the issues our opponents want us to talk about.

  23. Anon E Mouse says:

    Mike Homfray

    When *Labour* supporters were polled on the benefit cuts 70% agreed with them. As they would. Multi millionaires should never have had Child Benefits – it stinks the way the party wants to reward the rich in this country.

    Labour should be light years ahead in the polls with all these unpopular cuts…

    … except normal voters, the people that put Labour into government, support them. They are not unpopular cuts – as the polls clearly show.

    I repeat my point because it’s true and the sooner Balls, Byrne, Miliband and that weird acting bunch start admitting what we know to be true regarding overspending the better

    Labour has been hijacked by a bunch stupid activists and rich toffs like Polly Toynbee and Harriet Harman and the sooner the real working class are properly represented the better…

    btw Blair was 21% ahead in the polls without any popular cuts and with a PM the public liked.

  24. John P Reid says:

    mike honfray we maybe well ahead of where we were in 2010, but the tories are ahead of where they were in 2010 too, Bsically losts of liberals whose second choice were us have come over to us, and lots of Liberals whose second choice is tory have seen this ,been worried and gone to the tories, We were 16% ahead of the tories a year befroe the 1987 election and the tories got 12% more than us at that election.

  25. Dicke Ticker says:

    The issue was never the deficit. The ‘issue’ was the collapse in a real estate bubble created by deregulation. Private lending on the assumption of increasing real estate value created a speculative bubble, creating a debt overhang that exceeds public debt by orders of magnitude – by some estimates up to 400 times GDP.

    Yet private debt is never mentioned. Political orthodoxy demands that we all pretend that the government deficit is the problem.

  26. Anon E Mouse says:

    Dicke Ticker

    All debt is a problem, both private and government.

    The public have to pay back both though and at least private debt means you can watch a nice plasma TV whereas government debt means we all pay for the bombs dropped in Iraq and the private debt interest rate is usually set when we borrow the money.

    The interest on government debt varies all the time and at no point did a Labour voter like myself ever agree to waste £billions on PFI schools and hospitals….

  27. BenM says:

    John P Reid

    “mike honfray we maybe well ahead of where we were in 2010, but the tories are ahead of where they were in 2010 too”

    No they are not. They’re bang on where they were in 2010.

    The Tories gasp and splutter to put on 1 or 2 pc in the polls because underneath it all, they aren’t trusted by the electorate either.

    This does not and should not translate into huge poll leads for Labour, but it puts the dewy eyed Labour Uncut vision of the Tories into some sort of perspective.

  28. starfish says:

    You carry on squabbling

    It is like the People’s Front of Judea

    Jasmine can see it – the public can see it

    You can ignore it if you want but the drubbing you have just had in Bradford(Bradford of all places – how can Labour lose Bradford?!!!!!!) will continue until reality hits

    Much like the Kinnock years

  29. BritainLoans says:

    The peasants will have to wait until the budget before the next election before they are offered a few crumbs from the table ,with promises of much better to come if Dave is re elected .No doubt at election time he will be off up the pub for a few pints and fish and chips afterwards with a nice photo shoot thrown in to show he is a man of the people. In the mean time just hope a few pennies trickle down from the top. Most people are used to high-handed behaviour by Tory boys and gals, now understood to include the gruesome yellow-belly Lib Dems, but most people also have a healthy “taking the piss” threshold.

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