The drumbeat is getting louder. Can you hear it? It started as a whisper. No-one dared to say it out loud, but it was there. Unspoken but very much real. A (vocal) minority held its collective tongue, but we knew it couldn’t last. Now the drumbeat is out in the open and the whispers become cries. “Stop fighting the cuts“, they yell. “Cede the economy to the Tories”, they growl. “Or we’re doomed”, they intone.
The argument goes that we’ve already lost the argument on the economy, and that to continue ploughing the comfortable furrow of opposing the cuts is a dead end. “That way opposition beckons”, the siren voices cry. “Balls and Miliband should change course before it’s too late.”
They won’t of course, and perhaps that’s the reason for suggesting such a course of action? Make a suggestion that will obviously be ignored, watch events pan out and then cry “I told you so” at the next sign of danger. A slip in the polls, a poor speech, an economic upturn or a bullish performance from the chancellor – it’s all grist to the mill.
The reason Balls and Miliband won’t back Tory cuts is because it would be an absolute gift to the Tories. On the biggest issue of the day – the economy – George Osborne would be able to say he was vindicated. “It look a while,” he’d say, “but now even Ed Balls agrees with me on the economy.” It would be an admission that our entire economic narrative – not just for the last year, but since the mid-nineties – had been wrong. We’d be admitting that we didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining. We’d be admitting that we wasted money and didn’t fix public services. We might as well rebrand ourselves as “Spendthrift Labour”. Such an admission would leave us dead in the water. Never mind losing the next election, we’d be a laughing stock. It would be a volte-face that even Nick Clegg would baulk at. We’d be finished as a political party.
Because once you’ve crossed the Rubicon and accepted that the Tories have won the economic argument, where do you stop? Is it just a case of managing the country as pragmatically as possible? And what other policies of theirs should we adopt? This isn’t triangulation, it’s cloud cuckoo land politics. And we’re the cuckoo – squating in the Tory economic nest, eating all of their worms.
It’s argued that by accepting Tory cuts would give us a platform to win the next election. Winning elections is the only way in which you can achieve anything in politics. It’s the be all and end all. Opposition is by definition impotence. No-one in the Labour Party enjoys opposition – that’s just a straw man designed to belittle the arguments of those who disagree – but there are some things that the Labour Party should believe in. These cuts harm the life chances of people who depend on a Labour government. They’ll hit the schools and hospitals that millions rely on. They’ll take police off the streets. Those are bad things, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. It’s important to develop our own credible, positive economic message, but this isn’t the answer.
It’s not even fair to say that the argument on cuts is already lost. The economic year in which the cuts will really begin to bite is this one. It started only a few weeks ago. There hasn’t been time for the drip-drip-drip of cuts to have an impact on the wider public conciousness, and the lack of growth in the economy isn’t just causing concern amongst Labour voters – even the Telegraph aren’t sure we’re on the right course. And that’s before we consider that the Darling plan – on which messages like “too far too fast” are based, is more popular than the Osborne plan.
It’s easy for many people in the party to fall back on what they know. It’s safe and reassuring. Back in the nineties Labour said we would back Tory spending plans. That was key to gaining economic credibility and helped us back to power. It wasn’t easy but it was – tactically – the right thing to do. But we’re in a totally different situation now. Whisper it quietly, but the economy was doing ok in the nineties. Tory economic policies were creating growth. That meant that Labour had the latitude to stick to their plans. Now, in a period of stagflation (and as we slip to the bottom of the European growth rankings), to back Tory spending plans is to back their flawed economic logic. That wouldn’t boost our economic credibility, it would shatter it – and we’d lose the next election.
I don’t like being in opposition – this plan would keep us there.
Thank god it won’t happen.