Thursday, December 08, 2011

Calling for delayed cuts means delayed calling for cuts

Something interesting is happening to the Labour leadership. They’re starting to realise that their current ‘cuts later’ position means that later – at the next election, say – they’ll have to be for ‘cuts now’.

They’re also starting to think about the relationship between the image they project now and the image they’ll want to project come 2015.

If they carry on as they have, using most of their airtime to attack cuts that they genuinely see as too fast and too deep (but that they cannot possibly stop), they’ll establish themselves in the public mind as anti-cuts. They can certainly win some support like this, but the trouble is that when they get to ‘later’, they’re going to have to say ‘OK, we’re pro-cuts now’.

At that point, their anti-cuts supporters will lose enthusiasm, and much of the rest of the electorate – who will be more pro-cuts – will be deeply unconvinced by this late conversion from the party that’s been so vocally anti-cuts all this time.

But, as I say, they seem to be shifting their emphasis. Ed Miliband recently gave a speech in which the most-reported line was that “the next Labour government is likely to inherit borrowing levels that still need to be reduced. So even then resources will have to be focused significantly on paying down that deficit.”

And Ed Balls, writing this week, makes a similar point, but still gives the impression that he wants to slow down this repositioning: “it is so important that we set out before the next election tough fiscal rules that the next Labour government will have to stick to – to get our country’s current budget back into balance and national debt on a downward path”.

Before the election, yes, but how long before it?

Balls argues for “combining stimulus now to get the economy moving with a tough but balanced medium-term deficit plan”. But this leaves the question of what happens when we get to the medium term. He will have to say ‘You know that stimulus we wanted? Well, even though we didn’t get it, it’s too late now, so now we want cuts instead.’

Changing tone like that as an election nears is a very hard sell – as David Cameron found when, having spent a few years promoting a more caring, less anti-public-sector image, ended up campaigning on a much more conventionally right-wing platform in 2010. The difference is that Cameron’s about-turn arose from an unexpected crisis, while Balls is implicitly promising his in advance.

Labour will have to choose between arguing for what they would be doing/have done during this Parliament and arguing for what they want to do in the next.

Their struggle to make this choice is a symptom of a deeper tension: parties can respond to being kicked out of power by telling voters ‘we didn’t deserve to lose your trust’ or by telling them ‘we now deserve to regain your trust’. Miliband and Balls have preferred the former but are now fitfully edging towards the latter.

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