by Jonathan Todd
“It was just like a budget”. This was the immediate reaction of the ever perceptive Nigel Lawson when the Daily Politics sought it soon after the Autumn statement. Ming Campbell – the only other participant on a very balanced panel – concurred. That said; they had a point. Not only was the stagecraft familiar. The content was too.
The Conservatives have a script, you see. China is rising but the skivers aren’t, so further welfare reform is needed to prevent China eating all our dinners. The global race will be won by strivers, not drunken layabouts. And reform of our schools will create a nation of strivers. That’s if Johnny Foreigner and his euro don’t do what the last government and our “mess” could not quite do and do for us good and proper.
This script has been obvious since Conservative party conference. It has, in its own parlance, stayed the course. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was served up again yesterday. That’s the thing with political scripts. Politicians disembark on one that feels right, feelings which polling confirms. Then they keep saying it and saying it and saying it some more. Finally, maybe, it hits home with the electorate. By which time, certainly, they have bored themselves and the lobby into a stupor.
It was never really in doubt, consequently, what Osborne’s key messages would be. Any sentient political observer should have long known. We know its villains: the last government and the bed we made; welfare recipients and the beds that they lie in; the rest of Europe and their siesta.
But Osborne’s heroes shun and abhor all such lazy, flabby, debt-sodden indulgence. It is the strivers that have doubled exports to major emerging economies since 2009 and created over a million jobs in the private sector since he became chancellor.
Politics is the ceaseless clash of narratives: many half-baked, most never reaching a real terminus but the endless grafting of perceptions unto realities. So, what story did Ed Balls tell in rebutting this tale of striving heroes and shirking villains?
He stuttered at first. And the government benches jeered a man known to have a stutter. Such, such are the edifying joys of the Commons.
We had to suspend our disbelief at the cruel and spineless pit to which the great crucible of our democracy had fallen. But beyond this we could see that the government didn’t have enough good news to say everything was going to plan but had sufficient to take the sting out of Labour’s default attack line of “too far, too fast”.
Where does Labour go when so diminished?
The reality of a slowly improving economy is part of what caused me to argue that Labour will only win the economic argument when we make it about the future. Balls seems to agree, having written in the Evening Standard earlier this week that:
“Instead of a backward-looking debate about who was right and wrong in 2010, I think (families and pensioners) want to know how we can get our economy moving again, boost living standards and build a better future.”
This agreement between me and Balls, though, doesn’t amount to a forward-looking script. It just means we both think Labour needs one.
Politics, painted as it is in broad strokes, is a canvass on which a clear but poorly evidenced script can triumph over a less well formed but potentially more strongly evidenced script. Osborne’s well-spun half-truth can overpower Balls’ unvarnished truth.
This truth will unravel and be better understood as the details of the Autumn statement are picked over in coming days and weeks. This does not really detract, however, from Labour’s need for a stronger script that is forward looking and will resonate in a cautiously improving economy.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist