by Pat Mcfadden
For most of the period since the election, the government has been pretty successful at setting the agenda, particularly around the central question of tax and spend.
The spending cuts they have put through, they argue, are done more in sorrow than in anger and although these are tough decisions it’s really all Labour’s fault for letting things get out of hand. This has been the dominant narrative. Labour’s counter argument that the growth of the deficit was a necessary (and internationally replicated) step to stop recession turning into depression has struggled to be heard.
That was the framework of UK politics until recently. But something has changed. I don’t believe this is the politics of specific measures like the granny tax or the pasty tax. There have been plenty other individual measures people have disliked in the past two years but they have been largely accepted because of the acceptance of the dominant political narrative.
What has changed is the public’s judgement about the government’s competence. In other words, the key change is no single measure but rather the different lens through which the government is now seen. Put bluntly, people will forgive a government a lot of unpopular measures if they think the government knows’ what it’s doing. They will be a lot less forgiving if they think they don’t.
The key break point was petrol.
Whatever the outcome of the current negotiations in the drivers’ dispute, the queues outside filling stations a couple of weeks ago were unnecessary and dangerous. I don’t know if the government whipped this up because they wanted a strike story or because of “genuine” incompetence but it doesn’t really matter. The public know that the government screwed up.
There was no need to tell people to rush to the filling station, and certainly no need for the stuff about jerry cans. No strike had been called and seven days’ notice is required anyway. Petrol delivery and use is a very delicate just-in-time process. We are highly dependent on it and essentially, the nation’s fuel stock is in the tanks of our cars. Any unnecessary upset in that system is irresponsible and dangerous. Better and safer advice would have been to store stamps in jerry cans.
This petrol screw up has changed the way the public are looking at other decisions. The government is losing the benefit of the doubt on the budget issues around pensioners’ taxes and VAT on hot food. Suddenly they look more vulnerable. For the first time in two years, Labour has an opening. Of course it remains to be seen whether we can take advantage of it, but the opening is there.
The importance of this competence question should not be underestimated. People are less ideological than most politicians think. They will often believe in some things advocated traditionally by one party and some other things advocated traditionally by another. Of course in the end it’s a choice on a package of these. But whatever the ideology of a government, the voting public expects them to know what they’re doing. For the first time since the election, that is now in doubt.
Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East.