The NHS and the Tories, Labour and the deficit

February 16, 2012 11:09 am

David Cameron loves the NHS and Ed Miliband is deeply committed to reducing Britain’s deficit.  They say so all the time.  A lot of work clearly goes into ensuring this is the case.  Yet the polling on both issues has something depressing for both sides: in the most recent YouGov poll, Labour had an eight point lead on the NHS but the Conservatives had a twelve point lead on the economy.

If people aren’t sure what you think, saying something differently can change that.  But if people aren’t sure what you feel, you need to do something more.  And that seems to be where both parties are: no one believes that David Cameron plans to start flogging hospitals or Ed Miliband start nationalising industries.  But the Conservatives struggle to have the same emotional link to the NHS as the rest of the country while it isn’t obvious that Labour feels emotionally burdened by a national debt.

To prove a feeling: this is the very difficult test that neither party is meeting.  The only way I can see of doing it now is by enduring some political pain, or at least risking it.

For the Tories, it’s difficult: few feel the current NHS Bill is good enough to be worth taking a risk and fighting for. Looking back, the best opportunity might have been when Tory MEP Daniel Hannan criticised the NHS on Fox News back in 2009: had Cameron taken a tougher line and been willing to discipline Hannan and colleagues it might have worked well for the then opposition leader.  Now though, it’s hard to see when, if ever, David Cameron will get a chance to show the public what he is willing to put at stake for the sake of the NHS.

Labour has many more opportunities.  Ed Balls’ announcement on public sector pay last month was a good start: not just falling back on the easy targets of welfare cheats and bankers, and not backing down when Unite started talking about an “austerity apocalypse” under Labour’s plans.

But the next step has to be bolder. Right now, the Tories are picking what gets protected and what doesn’t.  Labour are agreeing with the former and disagreeing with the latter.  Could the party ever start to disagree with both: finding some areas of spending that the Conservatives would protect but Labour wouldn’t?

For me, the obvious candidates are elements of welfare that go to those on higher incomes, like the winter fuel allowance.  What you choose does depend on what you value and those on the left of the party might instead choose, say, Trident.  It’s a debate to be had, but if Labour is about spending in keeping with its values – rather than holding spending as a value – then it should be possible.

And the longer it is deferred, the greater the outcry needed to make people believe that you believe.  Had Labour said difficult things before the 2010 election, even promoting some relatively small cuts (not painless sounding efficiencies) would have seemed daring.  Now, to have a political impact, the choice of Labour cuts will need to be much bigger and electorally harder – another reason why high turnout, wealthier pensioners in receipt of the winter fuel allowance might be a good fit.

Until there’s a cut that’s really Labour’s – attacked by the Conservatives, attacked by the Lib Dems, attacked by the media and still stuck with by Labour – until then, Labour’s commitment to deficit reduction will always exist in the future rather than the present.

It also wouldn’t do the party any harm to get a fresh taste of – and realise the virtue in – making choices between unappealing alternatives. A cursory look at any fiscal forecast for the next Parliament will tell you: if Labour do win in 2015, that’s what will largely be in store.

Steve tweets as @steve_vr

  • http://twitter.com/SimonG_1 Simon

    When you have Labour screaming about a minor cut (WFA) they themselves had put in place (but in Brown style was deferred until after the election) then you have to realise that your article is fantasy. 

    Labour, thanks to Ed Balls, has backed itself into a corner so tight that every single idea I have seen from Labour members can be batted away within a minute. 

    The Tories will never be trusted on the NHS. Will that cost them an election? Not unless the economy is healthy and Labour are finally trusted not to contribute to a negative economic legacy that will take a generation to recover from. 

    In other words Labour does’t have much room to oppose and will likely be unable to begin to restore trust until after 2015. Acceptance that Labour will lose the next election is a crucial step to strategically move Labour where it needs to be. 

  • ovaljason

    Also from the survey:

    Percentage of 18-24 yrs who think Ed would be good in a crisis: 2% (Two)

    Good to see all that New Generation, #AskEd, M4C malarkey paying off there, Ed.

    In better news, percentage of LABOUR voters who think Ed is a natural leader : 8% (Eight)

    I mean come on…..

    • ovaljason

      The Scotland polling on Ed must be typos, surely?  Or did I miss Ed burning The Saltire on live TV?

      Ed is 5 points less Honest than Cameron?  Than Cameron.  In Scotland.
      11 points less Decisive.
      14 points less Strong
      3% of Scots think Ed a “Natural Leader” compared with 14% Cameron.

      All this in a country with more panda bears than Tory MPs.

      If these numbers are genuine, Ed must be locked in a box when it comes to the referendum debate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.hills1 Gary Hills

    Is not a race to
    see who can speak the hardest on austerity and its wrong for Labour as the
    Tories to make out it’s the only policy needed. It’s wrong 100%, austerity does
    not work and it’s not what the country wants.

    Attacking people on welfare is vile and shows Labour has lost touch with decency
    by allowing the likes of Liam Byrne to prattle on a mantra when he is devoid of
    connection to real life. Some 15 billion of welfare payments goes unclaimed
    every year, yet you do not here that mentioned by Labour and this is damaging.

    Those 18 billion in cuts are unjust and cannot be argued that welfare is not
    affordable as a result.

    Last year £25
    billion likely more was swindled by big companies and rich individuals in
    unpaid tax, if Labour wants to stop some of the harm to society through
    austerity it could argue to close the loopholes that allow it. I.e. making it a
    criminal offence to stash money outside of the country in tax havens. If they
    did then the need for such swinging cuts to public services would be greatly diminished.

    Yet the disappointment
    came when listening to Ed Balls, we all know the suffering the Tories are
    inflicting on people, yet was Eds statement worth waiting 18 months for. NO? It
    was devoid of an alternative and offered no real understanding of what was
    needed. Labour needs radical plans that do not just bang on about the debt. The
    debt is overblown, it can be paid back over decades and decades, it does not
    need the amount of focus to pay it banks on mass now.

    So what if the bankers do not get their blood money so quickly, so what if
    silly credit raiting agencies lower the UKs raiting, it matters not. If you
    have no growth in the country then you will never pay back anything. And what
    matters now is people not big bankers.

    Labour lost stack loads of credibility by cloning Osborne’s words and cast
    doubt on much of the leadership’s ability to reflect what is needed. The Party
    needs to be radical but radical for the good of all people and not just
    pandering to the rich bankers.

    Look at Greece, look how utterly austerity has failed 100% and look how people
    keep suffering and our expected to suffer more just because Germany expects
    them to. Well, there was a time when the UK did not look like Greece but now I
    am not so sure. This year sees 94% of austerity cuts to add to the 6% last
    year. I do not think people have woken up to just how much pain is coming.

    Yet one thing I will guarantee no opposition political party that backs
    austerity will get elected in 2015 if all they do is parrot the government over
    cuts. So Labour has a choice, 10 years out of office or start being bold and creates
    credible alternatives. If they cant do that then no they will not be seen as a
    better choice than Cameron because the public will say what’s the point, they
    are not offering any fight and any real difference on the economy.

    The Government has not won on their austerity plan despite what the polls say
    all that has happened is people have yet to feel the harmful effects of the
    cuts yet to come. It’s Time for Labour to think outside the box and start
    fighting for decency, fairness and social justice harder not less. The UK is
    not bankrupt and despite everything is still a rich nation, if we forget that
    we play into the hands of the Tories who will use any excuse to destroy, public
    services, social justice and equality. So what’s important a country with
    principles or one that leaves millions to fall onto the scrapheap to ensure the
    bankers are paid back?

     

  • Joanne28

    Good article, hope to return later to comment.

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