More quickly than anticipated, the coalition is struggling. As foreseen on LabourList, the first test of electoral opinion since the general election – the mass council by-elections in Norwich and Exeter – produced an early swing back to Labour. The leadership campaign has progressed smoothly and the fact that there’s likely to be a photo-finish enhances the appeal of a contest that has at times been rather dry. The polls now show Labour closing on the Tories and those who put money on these matters speculate that after a leadership announcement, Labour could be ahead.
Osborne’s “emergency budget” turned out to be a tactical mistake. Intended as a taster, a softening-up process before the real cuts came along, it appears to have confused electors who are now highly apprehensive of what’s to come next.
And it’s not just the electors who are confused. It’s an open secret that the cuts are taking place not just for (apparently) economic reasons but as part of a hard Tory ideology to “shrink the state”. Supposedly, this should be expressed in positive terms. Cameron is after all the optimist who would “let sunshine win the day”. But what’s the message now? Clearly, the Tories are in disarray on this.
The “Big Society” has been dropped. There have been far too many stories about cuts to third-sector organisations to make this a credible line any longer. David Cameron’s piece in Sunday’s Observer focused instead on “transparency” and “localism”.
And yet Cameron himself is conscious that “power back to the people” has been promised by politicians all too often before. It’s a weak line when so many of the coalition’s attacks have been specifically on local government. There is much angst on Conservative Home about what exactly their message should now be, and – a measure of their desperation – whether a better spin-doctor might solve the problem.
This week’s TUC congress seems to be for the most part a disciplined and dignified event, but just as everything is going right for Labour, it spells danger. At one level it’s a matter of image; too many trade union leaders are still angry old men talking a strange, archaic language which means little to most ordinary people, whether union members or otherwise.
The other point is this. The trade unions are naturally up in arms about the potential loss of jobs for their members. The danger however is that the response is seen as a producer-only phenomenon whereas the cuts are as much a threat to patients as health service workers, schoolchildren as well as teachers. It would distort, and possible weaken, the message to see the cuts as merely a sectional attack on a group of workers, when in reality they’re a threat to decent, civilized society as we know it. David Miliband was possibly right to distance himself yesterday; victims protest, but effective politicians know how to oppose.