The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement this week was met with much justifiable derision. This most incompetent government are continuing a trend of slashing spending while stimulating no growth and going back on their “all in this together” mantra by spreading the pain unfairly.
But while Labour rightly condemned George Osborne’s latest gloomy moves, there is plenty of work to do. Key to reversing the Conservative Government’s tilting of Britain back towards a more unfair, unequal society is a Labour victory in 2015. The course of the last 100 years of history shows that only Labour will bring real progress along with doing the inevitable job of patching up the gaping holes of injustice that Conservative governments leave behind. That will be the case again in 2015, but only if we win. And while the Tories look unelectable at the moment, May 2015 is a hell of a long time away.
There is a real possibility that the currently unelectable Conservatives may appear anything but when the public votes for their next government. As we have seen in America, when incumbents get their message in line with events during harsh economic times, they can be re-elected. Obama’s “let me finish what I’ve started” message clearly worked, but it worked alongside certain things he could point to delivering that were sustaining America’s recovery. From 2009 onwards, American GDP has risen sharply compared to Britain’s. Growth in America has also been steadily increasing since 2009 and Obama had stories to use to illustrate how he made this happen – “Bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive.” Meanwhile, growth in Britain has stagnated at best, and plummeted at worst, with Britain falling into double-dip recession.
These basic economic events aren’t enough on their own, but what they created was an impression among citizens that things were getting better. And key to an incumbent holding power is people having a sense that their own economic expectations are on an upward trajectory. Modern elections are decided on this, regardless of what anyone says about the Falklands or The Sun being decisive. That is why, if there was an election next week, the Tories would lose. Badly. But it is also why we would be foolish to be complacent.
The Office for Budget Responsibility’s response to Osborne’s statement was damning, but there is hope for them yet. Britain’s economy is now predicted to recover to pre-crisis levels in the final quarter of 2014 – a change from the OBR’s prediction earlier this year that we would recover to that level by the first quarter of 2014. While this is terrible news for the country, it could be good news for the Tories. If growth picks up by this time in 2014 (a big ‘if’), they can easily spin a line similar to Obama’s – one of optimism and one where, to paraphrase one of the most powerful election messages in recent times, “things can only get better, now”. An Osborne Autumn Statement in December 2014 on this backdrop could open up a world of opportunity for him – cut VAT for the winter and Christmas, keep fuel duty down again, raise the tax threshold once more, make people’s pockets feel heavier, show that Britain is finally on an upward trajectory and ask the people: “let us finish what we’ve started.” This could easily move that crucial economic factor that tugs at people’s voting choice: is my financial situation going to get better?
Against this atmosphere – where the deepest, darkest economic gloom shows some light from a mildly prosperous Christmas 2014 onwards – Labour needs to give a strong alternative. We cannot simply paint the picture of Tory despair and think people will give us a chance.
Our message between now and then needs to be one of optimism, and of hope. One where we will help people against the darkest forces of capitalism like pay day lenders, but give them options to create better futures for themselves – for example by reinstating the Future Jobs Fund. The people know Osborne is uncaring and intent on slashing public spending. They know the Tories are the party of the rich. But they knew that in 2010. They also knew it in 1979, 1983 and 1987. What they need to know is that Labour, contrary to that, is the political wing of the British people. They need to know how we will help them enhance their employability, get better jobs and wages, get their kids to University and ensure they have lifelines beyond education. They need to know how we will get their businesses access to finance, make their communities safer from crime and make their National Health Service fit for purpose. Simply Tory-bashing won’t do. More than anything else, people need optimism.