Why Labour never won the argument over austerity and the cuts

Sunny Hundal

On Friday last week, the day it was official the British economy had grown back to its size before the crash, the BBC World at One’s (WATO) presenter Shaun Ley started his interview with Ed Balls by asking: “Do you accept now that cutting public spending didn’t kill off the recovery?”


It’s worth reminding ourselves how gob-smacking this question is. Every major organisation that examined the impact of austerity found the cuts had hit economic growth. This is why the Chancellor missed his debt and deficit targets repeatedly and Britain had the slowest recovery in history. And yet, for some journalists, if a drunk eventually arrives home then his route was perfectly fine even it was hours later than planned.

The BBC spin on Britain’s economic recovery illustrates a broader problem the Labour leadership has faced since 2010: how to respond to the Coalition’s (ridiculous) accusation that Labour left the economy in a mess and spending had to be cut for the economy to recover.

Its an inconvenient fact that George Osborne agreed with and pledged to match Labour spending right up till 2009. Its also inconvenient for the Coalition that the Lib Dem plan for cuts at the last election was closer to Labour than to the Tories. Clegg even warned against deep spending cuts.

But, as the BBC WATO example shows, most journalists quickly forgot about these inconvenient facts. Some BBC editors pressed journalists to use the ‘savings’ instead of ‘cuts’ not long after 2010. Even some Guardian writers called on Labour to accept austerity.

Did Labour even try and fight back? Partly. At a private event a few weeks ago, a member of Ed Miliband’s inner circle explained the dilemma. He said that immediately after the 2010 election Labour went into a leadership election, and neither had a figurehead nor a narrative in place to immediately rebut the Coalition’s charge. Furthermore, the Tories were in government so they had the media megaphone (and support of much of the press), and they controlled the narrative. They nailed the media messaging by ensuring the message was repeated at every opportunity. Plus, winners get to define why they won.

What about after Ed Miliband became leader? Its not that he didn’t try – Miliband spoke at the TUC anti-austerity march in 2011 and even the Durham Miners Gala a year later – but the media tide against him was too strong. It was dismissed in the media as “deficit denial”.

Miliband’s advisor told the private audience that Labour “conceded ground” on the austerity debate, knowing the pros and cons that came with it, for two reasons. Firstly, that the party tried being defensive about its record but the public didn’t respond. They wanted Labour to talk about the future, not the past.

Secondly, he said, if you keep talking about the past it simply reinforces it (and the negatives that come with the past). “You have to talk about the future,” he concluded.

And so, the decision was made to pivot to focusing on Cost of Living instead, which was a retail phrase for a broader plan to transform the British economy in the spirit of ‘pre-distribution’.

Last week the YouGov tracker found that 44% of Britons now think the government’s cuts have been good for the economy, while 37% bad for the economy. 54% of Britons thought the cuts were necessary, while only 28% regarded them as unnecessary. The austerity debate, for all intents and purposes, is lost despite the plain facts. The economic recovery has fulled the public perception that the cuts weren’t so bad after all.

Could an unrelenting Labour opposition to the cuts have changed public opinion? Its not clear how. What silver bullet, in the form of a narrative, could Labour have employed that was better than their rebuttal that the cuts hurt the most vulnerable and went “too far too fast”? Would the public even listen to them? And would the media report on it fairly? Even four years on, despite all the facts, the BBC WATO example illustrates the problem all too well.


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