by Atul Hatwal
The terms of the debate are shifting within the Labour party. Since the underwhelming local elections, the question is no longer whether the poll lead is soft but why. Just this morning, one of Ed Miliband’s more doughty supporters in the media, Mary Riddell, penned her most pessimistic piece to date on Labour’s position.
This change has been partially obscured by the recent writhing of the Tory right over Europe and gay marriage but as the spending review approaches, it will come into sharp focus.
As ever, the answer to the question is to be found in voters’ views on the economy and specifically spending.
Labour’s case against the government has been clear: excessive Tory cuts killed off the flickering recovery of 2010 with the deficit rising as growth flatlines.
It is hard to disagree with the economics. But there’s a political problem.
More and more of the public back the cuts.
YouGov have asked a detailed series of questions on deficit reduction over the past three years and the shift in responses shines a light on why Labour’s poll lead isn’t so much soft as aqueous.
The public’s support for action on the deficit has been constant: at the start of March 2011, 57% felt that “the way the government is cutting spending” was necessary versus 32% who thought it unnecessary. Last week the figures were 57% and 29%, virtually no change over the past two years.
This should have been a warning that something wasn’t quite right with the poll lead: how could the public support Labour while also agreeing with the government’s approach to cuts.
But the YouGov surveys also had seemingly contradictory responses. The key question is on whether the public believe the depth of the cuts to be “too shallow,” “about right,” or “too deep.” The answers to this question initially suggested a consensus that the cuts were too deep. But that is changing.
Since April 2012 when 13% more felt the cuts to be “too deep” than either “about right” or “too shallow”, the position has shifted radically. This week, the poll had the pro-cuts camp 2% ahead.
As the graph shows, there is a good deal of volatility in the responses but applying a trend line demonstrates a very clear direction of travel. The public are more and more accepting of the scale of Tory cuts, and based on the past year’s trend, support for the depth of the cuts will consistently exceed opposition by the end of the year.
In answer to Labour’s central charge that the Tories are going “too far,” the public response is increasingly, “no they aren’t.”
The softening of Labour’s poll lead has occurred at the same time as the public have progressively made their peace with the government approach to spending cuts. The drop from an equivalent national vote share of 38% in last year’s local elections to 29% this year is impossible to pass off as tittle tattle or froth. The increased support for cuts too important to ignore as mere coincidence.
This shift will have fundamental implications for Labour and the spending review at the end of June.
This will be the fork in the road for the parliament . Inevitably it will be an eye-wateringly tight spending round, littered with traps for Labour to portray the party as profligate. How Ed Miliband responds to this will define the next election.
The rhetoric from the left of the party, and Ed Miliband’s union backers, is clear. Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, has been vociferous in his demands for the party to commit to a wholesale rejection of austerity.
The polling evidence suggests the public is moving in the polar opposite direction.
The standard Miliband response to this dilemma has been to equivocate and obfuscate. Warm words for both sides but no commitments. Rhetoric on “tough choices” without any sign of actual spending plans.
This won’t be possible in June.
The political pressure to produce some tangible spending proposals is mounting from all sides: the unions want clear commitments just as much as the more fiscally moderate sections of the party. The media are clamouring for some detail on spending.
But most importantly, the YouGov polling on the level of public backing for the cuts suggests that if Ed Miliband opts to delay offering anything specific again, then public opinion will simply continue along its current trajectory of growing support for the Tories economic plans.
If Labour want’s to solidify it’s poll lead it needs to present a credible alternative on spending to an increasingly hawkish public. It will mean political conflict with the unions and a major fight within the Labour movement.
The alternative, to reject the cuts, will be politically a path of lesser resistance within Labour but confirmation that the party has decisively parted ways with the public on the economy.
The spending review is Ed Miliband’s last chance before the election to signal a change in approach, move the party towards the public and disrupt the drift towards support of the Tories’ economic policies.
Time for the leader to make one of those “tough choices.”
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut