Labour must not be smug about bad economic news

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

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12 Responses to “Labour must not be smug about bad economic news”

  1. Nick says:

    You’ve missed off the big debts.

    Whilst you were in power, that debt rocketed.

    Between 2005 and 2010, you added 736 bn pounds a year to the pensions debts.

  2. swatantra says:

    Peter is right. Labour must shed its usual arrogance and be magnanimous in ‘victory, and avoid telling George: ‘We told you so’ about growth. There must be no gloating, but a show of contrition. Just wondering if Balls can do contrition, or we get somebody else to do it, like Rebecca. And we have to have our Alternative Budget ready by Wednesday to put before the House.

  3. Felix says:

    “Debt is rising more under 5 years of Cameron than under 13 years of Labour”

    Nick, that’s from your man at the Spectator, Fraser Nelson.

  4. e says:

    Is Osborne a fool? The question will likely make it to the history books. Any glee I as a member of the public living here on the ground experience at the continuing sickness in the economy is a natural consequence of my own self interest. Osborne’s considered choices (steeped in yesterday’s thinking) are putting my own, my families and my community’s survival at evident risk for the benefit of others. The confidence and political awareness of many is being tested sorely. These are indeed sober times. Labours reflection and contrition was warranted and given; now is the time for strength, confidence and policy reflecting lessons learnt, not the continual underpinning of TINA as we get walked down the road to ruin.

  5. Mouth of the Umber says:

    The Tories did a very good job of pinning the blame sole on the Labour government, even though the failures were to trust capitalists when they said they would self-regulate. And it was the merchant bankers abuse of the light-touch regulation that caused the problems.
    Labour made the mistake of trusting capitalists, but capitalists abused the system and Labour failed to defend themselves during the leadership contest when the Con-Dems had just got hold of the reins of power.
    Now we have to live with the consequences and the poor, weak, old and vulnerable will be made to suffer 🙁

  6. Terry Casey says:

    Osborne cannot afford to make any outlandish promises as he will keep any powder he has left until march 2014, he will attempt at that point to buy the next election because at that point he will have nothing to lose. Its something the Tory party does well when they are in power hence the boom and bust years, As has been said Ed Balls needs to put forward a credible alternative although it has been the position of the party to be non comital as far as the Economy is concerned.
    The Party seem to have swallowed the mantra spewed out by the coalition that they were responsible for the Banking Crisis, I don’t think they were blameless by the way (kowtowing to the banks) but it was a crisis made in the banks by the banks.

  7. Ex-Labour says:


    I’m a little puzzled by your piece. I agree wholeheartedly that Labour seen to be revelling in the predicament we are in. Unfortunately all the public see is that grinning smug tw*t Ed Balls, who along with Brown was the instigator of much of this mess. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, he is a drag on the Labour ticket and Milliband could do himself a lot of good, by a good public firing of his shadow chancellor. I think he would go up in many peoples estimation.

    You also mention Labour own solutions to problems. Did I miss something here ? There has been little in the way of costed policies put forward by Labour, which is yet another black mark for the Ed’s. You can’t have a policy of having no policies, it just wont work.

    You also mention taxation. But whilst Labour squeal about reducing the 50% rate, they fail to tell the public that according to Treasury figures the tax take went down under this penalising rate.

    @ Terry Casey

    Whilst it was a banking crisis which started all this economic gloom, it then went on to expose profligate governments who were spending far more than they were raising……ahem…..step forward the Labour government as one of the main culprits.

  8. savepenrhos says:

    I happen to agree with Ex-Labour. Balls and grossly irritating wife have to go. The are baggage from the last (failed) regime. On current opinion polls Labour will LOSE the next election. It is perfectly normal for opposition parties to be at least this far ahead mid-term and go on to lose.

  9. swatantra says:

    Nobody not even Balls is ‘revelling’ in the dire predicament that Britain finds itself in. But Labour is appalled at the way the Coalition is muddling its way through along the wrong track. What you may imagine as a supercillious grin on the face of Balls is actully one of utter bemusement that the Coalition is simply not prepared to isten and admit it has made wrong choices and is determined to pursue Plan A to the bitter end. Any sensible person would throw up their hands in exasperation, including Balls.

  10. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Swatantra

    Even Balls own polling to see what the public think of him tells him is a stain on Labour. You mention Plan A but we have yet to see any plan or policies from Labour. All we hear is too much too quickly without any further expalnation of a Labour plan, except of course tax more and spend more. Now let me see what go us in to this mess via Brown, Balls etc…….errrm…..let me see now….yes I have the answer….. spending way too much on things the country could not afford !!

  11. Terry Casey says:

    Peter I said they weren’t blameless but the at the beginning of the crisis the debt was less than the Tory party had ten years previous after 14 years in power, only after the banking crisis did spending take off and that was to protect the banks, peoples pensions and jobs, the labour Government deserve more credit than was given to them.

  12. Daisy says:

    World economy has lots of problems. Even economically stable countries have financial problems, debts and rising unemployment level. It’s necessary to set effective budget and be realistic about savings and spending. Governments should think more of average people who live from paycheck to paycheck and use hassle-free payday loans from time to time to feed their families. Government should work for people but not against them. But they raise taxes to cover their expenses and make difficult life even more complicated.

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