The NHS and the Tories, Labour and the deficit

16th February, 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

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