Too fast, too slow – how the passing of time is shaping politics for Cameron and Miliband

Labour needs to move at pace if it’s not going to get timed-out.

Two years into the life of the coalition and all the sudden the passing of time seems like Ed Miliband’s best friend and David Cameron’s worst foe. For a government that has lost its footing, facing an opposition learning how to benefit from the stumbling and fumbling, the long expanse of time left in this parliament will be starting to feel less like an opportunity to develop and deliver an agenda and more like an ordeal to be survived.

It’s not just the slow motion horror of the six weeks since the budget or the likelihood that the next few weeks, dominated as they will be by the Leveson inquiry, will feel like a very long stretch indeed for Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron. It’s the six budgets and autumn statements the coalition parties have to negotiate before the next election; the thirty seven months of enervating governing grind to get through; and the fact that come the next election it will have been a full 23 years since the Conservatives won outright, an observation that is weighing increasingly heavily on the Tory ranks who sense their prospects of doing so next time aren’t brightening. A lot of politics is still to happen even before the parliament reaches half-time – and the second half is littered with all manner of political, economic and legal icebergs.

 And yet, for an upbeat Labour, the clock is ticking loud and clear. Over recent months this point has often been made in relation to the risk that the electorate forms a settled and negative view of the leadership or the legacy of the previous Labour government. But just as pressing an issue is how Labour gets itself into a position to respond to the single biggest challenge it faces between now and the next election: the spending review that George Osborne has pencilled in for autumn 2013, which will span the years 2015-17.

Let’s start by recognising the obvious: it will be a political and policy horror story for all sides.  The numbers released at the budget imply continued cuts of over 2.3 per cent per year across public services – and that’s if we assume another £8bn is cut from welfare spending, on top of this parliament’s £18bn; alternatively, if welfare is not cut further, the hit to public services rises to 3.8 per cent per year (read this excellent blog by Nick Pearce for an overview). All this is driven by the fact that the OBR now estimates that the structural deficit won’t reach a balance until the middle of the next parliament (indeed the path of deficit reduction now looks very reminiscent of the Darling plan which Osborne used to lambast). Prior to the last Budget, Conservative strategists would have been rubbing their hands in anticipation at the political mayhem the spending review could create for Labour, as it is forced to pick between backing further cuts that hit the bone, tax hikes, or what be presented as another round of deficit-denial. Six weeks on the politics for the Conservatives look less straightforward.

Every new cut is likely to be more painful to make than those already agreed and the public mood at the time of the next spending review will be far darker than it was in 2010, or even now, given continued falls to living standards. Moreover, the budget demonstrated that even minor fiscal tinkering, never mind yet deeper reductions in spending, can now wreak political havoc for the coalition. Choosing where to cut will be painful. The lead target will be welfare spending, which is why it’s noteworthy that IDS has put down such a clear marker that he won’t tolerate further hits to his budget. The future NHS budget presents a monumental challenge: failing to protect it is unlikely to be an option, not least given the recent Lansley debacle and the fact that public concern over waiting lists is likely to be escalating by 2013; but ring-fence it, as Cameron will surely want to, and the cuts elsewhere are even more terrifying.

Yet all of this may be something of a picnic compared to the political challenge faced by the Lib Dems. Since the Budget senior advisors have admitted - in private at least - they are in a wilful state of denial about how they navigate the treacherous terrain between the spending review and their 2015 manifesto. Come the election they will, of course, tweak the coalition’s choices on tax and spending to give Lid Dem policies more of a yellow hue. But having spent 18 months drafting, presenting and defending Osborne’s choices the public may not be open to this belated change in direction.   

For Labour, though, the stakes are perhaps highest. Recall it hasn’t seriously engaged with a spending review and the trade-offs involved in them for six years – and back in 2007 the government thought it was getting tough by bringing down the annual growth rate of public spending from 4 per cent to 2 per cent. In early 2010 it chose not to undertake its own pre-election spending review, and no-one much cared what it had to say in response to the coalition’s defining statement that came that autumn.

Again, it will be very different next time. There will be searing scrutiny of Labour – understandably so given the period covered would span the first half of the next parliament - a period during which Labour has already conceded that it would be making cuts.

If Labour is to stick with the playbook of modern politics – and very few leaders depart from it - it will opt to match pretty much whatever the coalition comes up with in 2013.  Neutralise your political weaknesses is the rule. Brown did this in the mid 1990s when committing to stick to Tory spending plans, just as Osborne did pre-crash when pledging to match Labour spending totals, and then post-crash in protecting the NHS budget. And in the eyes of the public, Labour’s major weakness is, and is likely to remain, spending and the deficit. Given this, it will be argued forcefully that the very last thing it should do is distinguish itself by backing a bigger deficit that lasts for longer – or indeed hiking up taxes. Whatever the macroeconomic merits of adopting a looser fiscal stance during 2010-2012, so the argument will run, both the politics and economics point a different way for 2015-17.  

If this orthodox strategy prevails it will, of course, be contested. Some will highlight that predicating Labour’s political future – and forcing it into what many on the left will view as a kamikaze position on cuts in key areas - on the shifting sands of OBR estimates (and their inevitably sketchy views of the potential output of the economy) is a gamble too far. More generally, it will be argued that to stand shoulder to shoulder with the coalition on another bout of cuts at a time when austerity economics is at its most vulnerable would be a truly perverse act of political masochism. Just as the coalition succeeded in laying responsibility for the cuts announced in 2010 at Labour’s door, the next round of retrenchment can be pinned directly on Cameron and Osborne for stalling the economy - or so it will be claimed.  

If Labour is to be the answer to the central questions of our times it needs to demonstrate both an iron fiscal resolve over the medium term and show that, even in an era of sustained austerity, progressive choices can be made. To do this convincingly it will have to make its reckoning with some fundamental questions about the role of the state over the next decade – where it should advance, retreat and act differently - as well as on future sources and levels of taxation. And you don’t do this overnight.

Just as a currently beleaguered coalition is grasping quite how long it still has to govern for, a newly self-confident Labour needs to move at pace if it’s not going to get timed-out. Tick-tock.

The clock is ticking loud and clear for Labour. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.