Yes, you guessed right, another article on the Balls U-turn in addition to the fifty-odd you’ve no doubt already read since the weekend, and though I share the same disbelief and anger as Len McCluskey, Owen Jones and scores of other people who have made their feelings known these past few days, I’d like to raise an issue which has been thus far neglected but one that is fairly central to understanding the policy shift that we have just made and what other alternatives were – and still are – available.
‘Credibility’ is a word that has been thrown about a lot recently, but in the rush to regain it Miliband and Balls appear to have conflated at least three different meanings of the word which can and should be understood as being separate from one another. A lack of credibility on the economy cannot simply be boiled down to a lack of credibility on the deficit, just like you cannot infer from a lack of credibility on the deficit that the only solution is to cave into the coalition on cuts.
That we lack credibility on the economy is fairly clear. There is plenty of polling data showing Miliband/Balls trailing a few points behind Cameron/Osborne/Clegg on who is best trusted to run the economy but what is less clear, however, is that we lack credibility on the economy because we are seen to be deficit deniers. Though the odd poll does show narrow support for the government’s approach to deficit reduction, it is one thing for respondents to agree to the general idea of cuts but quite another for them to be happy with heartless (and mindless) cuts to the benefits of their disabled friends and family; the scrapping of their children’s much-lauded EMA and ‘efficiencies’ at their local hospital, all of which, according to Balls, we would not seek to reverse. And, as Liberal Conspiracy’s analysis of YouGov polling data shows, public opinion – particularly amongst crucial Lib Dem voters –was swinging behind our (former) approach to deficit reduction, even as recently as December – making Balls’ new year’s resolution all the more perplexing. A few limited and not well-publicised nor much campaigned-upon proposals aside, we have yet to propose an alternative to the austerity that we have (at least until last weekend) been attacking. It is this lack of a coherent agenda that is at the hart of our lack of economic credibility.
Even if, despite this, we accept that our lack of credibility on the economy essentially boils down to a lack of credibility on the deficit it is yet another huge and largely unsupported leap of faith to accept this means that the solution is to embrace all the cuts that have hitherto been made. Even Standard & Poor’s warned after the rash of credit rating downgrades last week that “a reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating.” Consolidating our national finances requires a mix of cuts, tax increases on those who can afford to pay more and investment in our existing capital – including investing in our human capital, as opposed to launching an assault upon it. We can be credible on the deficit without capitulating to the Tories on cuts and if take a lead on this we might get some support from unexpected places, as the S&P announcement shows.
Another important issue here is with whom we are supposed to lack credibility. I see another discredited New Labour tendency creeping back in here: tailoring policy to what we think are the concerns of a archetypal middle England voter and pissing off large chunks of our natural supporters in the process. I’m sure there are voters who think us not credible on the deficit and who think we need to make cuts, but there are far more – running into the millions – people who are looking for a party to have the guts to stand up for them as they face the most comprehensive onslaught on their quality of life they have ever known and who will baulk at the sight of the party of working people pledging to keep the coalition’s cuts. They may not necessarily go and vote for someone else but if they feel sufficiently uninspired to turn out to vote it will make it very difficult for us to return to power in 2015. This reminds me of the Thick of It episode in which Hugh Abbott launches an ultimately disastrous policy off the back of a sole supposedly “solid middle England” focus group participant, to which Tucker retorts “so middle England is a huge fucking field, with one woman stood in it?”
Our biggest problem now is inconsistency: and that is where the danger of credibility lies. However haltingly, Miliband and Balls appear to be trying to get the notion of responsible, ethical capitalism and the idea that government should be on the side of the hard-working ‘producers’ onto the agenda yet at the same time have accepted the need for cuts – which hitherto have been focused on the most vulnerable in society through cuts to disability benefits and on our dedicated public sector workers via wage freezes and pension reform – in order to clean up the mess caused in party by the irresponsibility of the financial sector. If that’s not the definition of a contradiction, then I don’t know what is.
Just as confusingly, we have now put ourselves in the position of pledging not to reverse any cuts if we return to power yet at the same time arguing that cuts are being made are “too far and too fast”, as a number of our frontbenchers have tried and failed to do this week. There’s a fairly boring debate to be had about whether that is actually a contradiction or just an apparent one, but whatever the case, our message will look contradictory and confused to the average voter, particularly when conveyed via a media not known for its attention to detail nor dedication to nuance or subtlety.
These are both huge and potentially very destructive inconsistencies that are the real threat to our credibility as a government-in-waiting. In trying to be credible on the deficit we run the risk of being credible on nothing at all.
Dan Heap is a doctoral candidate in social policy at the University of Edinburgh. He tweets as @commentdan.