by Peter Watt
This time in two weeks we will all be chewing over the chancellor’s budget. If the mood music is to be believed then we will not be reviewing a dramatic budget replete with economic flourish. Rather it will basically be a restatement of the deficit reduction plan outlined in the coalition agreement.
There will in all likelihood be the addition of a few targeted tax breaks, some nod to infrastructure spending and some extension of the state backed business bank. But basically no real change in approach. However Osborne is no fool, so we can safely say that he will have something up his sleeve that will be the measure that he hopes will define his budget.
Presumably he and his team will do a better job of politically sense checking his budget this year than last! Team Osborne is under pressure from their own side as MPs can see the possibility of winning the next election slowly becoming less likely.
But Labour will also be under pressure. Whilst Labour’s economic numbers are improving they are still blamed by much of the electorate for causing the economic woes facing Osborne and the country. And that is why the tone of their response will really matter.
Generally speaking, if you are held responsible for causing a problem it is not a good idea to appear really pleased that someone who is trying to sort out your mess is struggling! It certainly won’t convince anyone that you didn’t actually cause the problem in the first place. It is unlikely to make you look clever; in fact it will probably simply reinforce the idea that the whole thing was your fault anyway, and that you had failed to learn the lessons and were in fact in denial.
This came home to me vividly the other day when it was my turn to cook. I left the meal in the oven too long and the food not only burnt but became effectively welded to the inside of the oven. I blamed the six nations but Vilma blamed me; to be honest she was a little cross.
I tried to clean it up, but not very well, the oven stank of burnt food and so Vilma decided to “do the job properly”. She duly started scrubbing away with me on hand to pass on helpful hints. It was clearly hard going, which I was quite pleased about as she had so unreasonably been giving me such a hard time for burning the meal in the first place.
I also pointed out that her faltering efforts were doing more harm than good as she was scratching the non-stick surfaces of the oven. I even offered to take over. But for some reason, and much to my surprise, Vilma became more and more irritated with me!
But think back to every piece of bad economic news that has emerged over the last couple of years. The missed deficit targets, the rising debt, the poor tax returns, rising unemployment and finally the downgrading of our economic outlook by Moody’s.
Did Labour sound just a little bit pleased at Osborne’s discomfort? You bet they did! We all know that when we are awaiting the latest growth figures that (whilst they won’t say it) Labour would secretly like to see a triple-dip recession. Even the occasional bit of good news is welcomed with a heavy dose of “yes but…”
It’s not surprising therefore that when Labour points out where the government is going wrong and offers its own solutions, even if they are right, they aren’t rewarded by voters. Voters notice Labour’s barely hidden glee and “remember” that Labour caused the mess in the first place.
Instead of thinking Labour is clever and Osborne is mistaken they think that Labour has a bit of a cheek criticising anyone else on their management of the economy. And also that being even a little bit pleased at the state of the weak economy as it is politically advantageous, will not please those worrying about keeping their job or paying the bills.
So Labour’s response to the budget has to avoid reinforcing the sense that they are delighted that George Osborne will have to fess up to missing most of the targets that he set himself. They should make sure that it is clear that deficit reduction is a shared objective not just a governmental one.
That it is the millions of working people who are struggling to make ends meet who should be the focus of the chancellor’s efforts – not the wealthiest few. And that the growth the economy needs is certainly difficult but not impossible to encourage, and that Labour will support pro-growth measures announced by the chancellor.
The easy response will be to sneer at the economic underperformance overseen by the chancellor and so raise raucous cheers on Labour’s benches. The temptation will be to talk about unnecessary and overly hasty cuts to government spending and the squeezing of benefits.
But both would be wrong. These are sober times and Labour should remember that they are held partly responsible. Very obviously enjoying the chancellor’s discomfort is certainly not a good idea even it feels fun at the time sitting inside the House of Commons.
It will be a difficult balance to strike, but it will not just be George Osborne and the government under pressure next week on budget day. And Labour would do well to remember that however much they enjoy the disquiet on the Government benches.
Incidentally, we ended up paying someone to come and industrially steam clean the oven. There’s probably a political metaphor in that, but to pursue it would probably be a metaphor too far.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party