The positive alternative to just denouncing cuts

by Jessica Asato

I don’t agree that Labour should stop fighting the cuts as Peter Watt wrote last week. But in the furore surrounding his audacious suggestion, most people seemed to miss a sensible point. That the public still blames Labour for overspending and is aware that, had we been elected, would be making cuts too, seems lost on the wider party.

On the doorstep, the overwhelming impression I get is that people are indeed angry about the cuts that are threatening their communities, but don’t believe Labour has yet set out a credible alternative. The question – so what would you do differently – has become as tricky on the knocker as taming a tetchy pitbull.

It is because we have such trouble answering this simple request that the cuts have become our single narrative. We cling to the belief that as people see services falling away they will repent of ever doubting Labour. They’ll flock back to the true righteous path and thank Labour for spending their money on great things. Except, they won’t. No matter how much we shout “international global financial crisis”, the public believes that Labour got the country into a financial mess like they always do and don’t know how to get out of it.

The choice we face is either to create a hullabaloo about cuts for the next four years and how Labour was terribly misunderstood in the hope that someone will hear us, or acknowledge that, however successful our campaigning is, most cuts will unfortunately happen and in 2015 we’ll need to have a plan for governing in a different climate. Because it is clear that if Labour were elected tomorrow, we wouldn’t be able to turn on the money tap again. So if only fighting the cuts isn’t the answer, what is?

Labour was founded to represent the ordinary working person, or as old Clause IV put it “to secure for the workers… the full fruits of their industry”. The idea of just reward for work cannot be reduced to a debate about state transfers of cash to services. When Labour has been successful, it has articulated a vision of how much better life could be, rather than defending how good life was yesterday. We may not like to admit it, but too many people felt that the fruits of their industry – their money – were being spent by the state on the wrong things. This, coupled with a sense that Labour was tired, badly led, and part of the establishment, made the Tories look like an interesting, if not entirely trusted, alternative.

Our alternative has to start from what the public think of us now, not what we think they ought to think about us. So instead of simply saying that we’ll protect services, we should say to people: “we’ll spend your money more wisely on your service priorities and work to get better results than before”. If we want to increase public spending, we should link it to success in growing the economy first.

We should be just as passionate about creating jobs in the private sector as in the public. New Labour failed to see the importance of investing in manufacturing and in creating jobs with dignity outside of the services or financial sectors. If the state is to retain a role, it should be focused here, providing new centres of pride in Britain’s regions and local resilience in the face of global competition. Our offer to small businesspeople should be just as strong as that to teachers and social workers.

Labour should stick up for the little people against companies who rip them off, championing causes such as Stella Creasy’s campaign against legal loan sharking. Wherever it looks like market power is making life hard for people, Labour should be on their side, for example arguing against excessive bank charges and energy companies who increase prices while they make serious profits. If Labour is to truly represent the worries of the squeezed middle, fighting against child benefit cuts cannot surely be the only weapon in our armoury?

Going back to Peter Watt, none of this means that Labour should stop fighting cuts. Stopping forests being sold off and the NHS going down the wrong track while in opposition is our job. But it’s not our only job and won’t win Labour the next election. We’ll continue the petitions, the marches and the anger, but until the public trusts Labour’s economic message, it will all be for nought.

Jessica Asato is a Labour councillor and campaign consultant.

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12 Responses to “The positive alternative to just denouncing cuts”

  1. william says:

    More inward looking, navel gazing,to add to Peter Watt , Rob Marchant,and the elevation of more acolytes of the electorally rejected previous regime.71 percent of the electorate must have had a point.In 2014, ‘cuts’ will be forgotten.The electorate will be looking for evidence that Labour might be a party of competence, fit to govern, with a credible picture of the future.Consequently, best to come clean now about the economic sins after 2002,and promise a responsible fiscal policy,immigration policy,commitment to private enterprise, and localism reform in the public sector.The tories will be optimistic in 2014, and keen to remind the electorate(as if they will have forgotten) of some unfortunate economic history.Given that Labour has given Scotland to the SNP, a few English voter friendly Labour politicians and policies would help.

  2. theProle says:

    This piece doesn’t answer the question it claims to.

    Labour has 3 theoretical options.

    1) Oppose the cuts. When asked they would do instead, refer people to the money tree/taxing bankers more/etc

    2) Accept some cuts. Oppose some, suggest others which haven’t been made to make the books balance.

    3) Accept all the cuts, fight the Tories on other grounds.

    The author of this piece seems to think that you can go for option 1, and then mount a distraction campaign on other issues to stop people asking where the money tree is planted. It isn’t going to work chaps – the public isn’t that daft, and all the while you oppose all cuts to anything – the “where’s the money coming from” question just won’t go away.

    I’m not a Labour supporter, but if I was I’d want to go for option 2. Then, as a country we could have a sensible debate about what to cut, and the party could shed some of it’s dafter policies (e.g. why does the Labour party support paying child beniefit to the well off, while the Tories have cut it). It would also signal to voters that a return to the real world has possibly occurred, especially if Balls and his Millipede crawled out in front of the press to admit what everyone already knows – if they had won the last election they would have cut just as much as the Tories have…

  3. Real Chris says:


    “71 percent of the electorate must have had a point”

    71% of 65% of the electorate.

    “In 2014, ‘cuts’ will be forgotten.”

    Will they? It took 21 years for unemployment to drop below the level the tories inherited in 1979, how will the 950,000 unemployed under-24s and their families feel having maybe spent years on the dole.

  4. Ben Cobley says:

    I was with you until, “Our alternative has to start from what the public think of us now, not what we think they ought to think about us.”

    Now I am thinking that our alternative spiel should actually start from what we think is the right thing to do – and yes that does include biting on a few bullets re. cuts. But we currently have vacuum of substance when it comes to articulating a vision, leaving us all to go off in different directions defending the particular piece of spending that we were particularly attached to.

    I also do not agree we should focus on the economy. As you point out, this is a weakness for Labour at the moment; we are actually in a no-lose situation if we focus on other things (of course I don’t mean completely shut up on it though).

    If the economy goes down the tubes, the government will get it in the neck anyway. But if it improves (which depends mostly on the world economy), they will get credit and will not stop telling everyone what idiots we were for our moaning and whingeing on the sidelines. Best to move on to something else more interesting where we can start to inspire people again and outflank a government that is already starting to look old and boring and tired.

  5. Joe says:

    “If the state is to retain a role” – hmmm

  6. David Brede says:

    There is a clear case for Labour to criticise cuts that unfairly hit people and the economy.

    The Tories have now had a year of their choices about what they would do and should be challenged about the consequences of their bad decisions.

    Clearly we should be setting out clear alternatives and pressing the case. The remutualisation of the Northern Rock is a clear example what we should be doing to force the debate on to our territory.

    We are in opposition and a bit of strong opposition is what’s required now.

  7. Geoff says:

    There are two distinct issues in talking about cuts which tend to get conflated. There is a short term and long term.

    In the short-term the Tories are clearly in the wrong. The pace of cuts is manifestly determined by the political cycle instead of sensible economics. Attempting to reduce the deficit (whether through spending cuts or tax hikes) at this point in the economic cycle will be expensive. I think this is a case that Labour is making well.

    In the longer term, clearly something has to be done about the structural deficit. And this is where Labour is lacking a certain amount of credibility. To do so, either spending must be cut or revenues must be raised. The latter will happen, to an extent, as the economy recovers, but I think we can be confident that growth won’t be that great and it certainly won’t be enough.

    The case Labour has to make is that there is a real difference between cheap public services and efficient public services. The Tories are only interested in cheap public services, even if that means you get less value per pound spent. An overstretched, underfunded, demoralized public sector is unlikely to deliver any improvement in efficiency.

    The flipside to this is Labour has to show two things: that it can deliver a more efficient public sector and that the cost of funding it sustainably can be shared fairly.

  8. AmberStar says:

    Well, this turned out to be an ill-timed piece.

    Reported today: The ‘cuts’ have caused borrowing to increase because the resulting economic slowdown is affecting tax receipts…. whoever would have thought that could happen?

    Answer: Ed Balls, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband & lots of very credible economists.

    But Jessica wants us to give George Osborne our blessing! Oh dear…..

  9. iain ker says:

    1 Spend too much money and economy gets in a hole.

    2 Get economy out of the hole by spending even more money

    3 Then because economy is out of hole carry on spending money

    This must be how the world works because Ed Balls, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband & lots of very credible economists think so.

    I happen not to think so.

    But, hey, what do I know.

  10. BenM says:

    iain ker

    “Spend too much money and economy gets in a hole”


    Er, do you even understand what economics is?

    “But, hey, what do I know.”

    Not very much by the looks of it.

  11. Richard says:

    Jack shit judging from your simplistic economic hogwash, Iain Ker.

  12. Richard says:

    “most people seemed to miss a sensible point.”

    Jessica Asato has missed the point, full stop.

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