The key contradiction in the Tories’ deficit spin

Was there a Labour plan, or not?

Various half-truths, lies and myths about the deficit have been peddled by the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and their supporters in the press in recent months. Right-wing deficit hawks pretend that the deficit had already ballooned prior to the 2008 banking crash when, in fact, as Labour's new shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, pointed out in the House of Commons yesterday, this country entered the financial crisis with the second-lowest Budget deficit in the G7.

They also claim that the Blair and Brown governments spent excessively and unwisely in the run-up to the crash, omitting to mention that Messrs Cameron and Osborne backed Labour's spending plans right up until November 2008. (See Jonathan Freedland's excellent column in yesterday's Guardian for further details and observations.)

But the biggest contradiction (lie?) at the heart of the Con-Dem spin strategy concerns their (mis)representation of the Labour Party position on deficit reduction.

In a round of interviews this morning, George Osborne claimed:

People keep saying, "Where's your plan B?" I've got a plan A – this country didn't have any plan at all a few months ago.

Yesterday, however, in his Spending Review in the Commons, he concluded:

I am pleased to tell the House it has been possible – and the average saving in departmental budgets will be lower than the previous government implied in its March Budget. Instead of cuts of 20 per cent there will be cuts of 19 per cent over four years.

So, let me get this straight. The Tories have been saying for months that Labour left the country in a mess, without a deficit reduction plan, that Labour frontbenchers are "deficit deniers", blah, blah, but then, yesterday, Osborne suddenly claims that Labour had planned for 20 per cuts in departmental spending and his 19 per cent cuts were therefore lower than those. But then, this morning, he reverts to form and starts droning on about the alleged absence of a deficit reduction plan until, God bless them, the Con-Dem coalition came to office in May.

This is as absurd as it is dishonest. They cannot claim, on the one hand, that they are making these draconian, swingeing and severe cuts because Labour didn't have the balls or the brains to do so, but then, on the other, claim that Labour's cuts would have been worse than theirs.

UPDATE

You can watch me debating the Spending Review with the Tory blogger Iain Dale and the Chatham House economist Vanessa Rossi on al-Jazeera's Inside Edition here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.