Cameron's promise of more austerity is an election trap for Labour

Miliband must not let austerity define the next election.

The economic significance of David Cameron's suggestion that austerity will last until 2020 is far outweighed by the political significance. Three years out from the next election, the Prime Minister is already attempting to define the terms on which it will be fought. Having previously indicated that austerity will last for another two years, he now speaks of a full five.

In part, this is an admission of failure. The Conservatives' original plan was to go into the 2015 election able to boast that they had cleaned up "the mess" left by Labour - a powerful political narrative - and offer significant cuts in personal taxation. But the failure of George Osborne's deficit reduction plan (the OBR forecasts that the UK will have a deficit of at least £79bn - 4.5% of GDP - in 2015) has forced them to abandon this strategy. Gone are the "sunlit uplands" that Cameron once spoke of, now he forecasts only grey skies. In the Prime Minister's view, however, all is not lost. If the next election is defined by austerity, he believes it is the Tories, rather than Labour, who will benefit. Cameron and Osborne will attempt to paint Labour as the defender of a bloated welfare system (they are encouraged by the popularity of the coalition's benefits cap) and an overmighty public sector. Osborne's promise of another £10bn in welfare cuts is an early preview of this strategy, with Labour uncertain how to respond.

The biggest question now facing the party is whether to allow Cameron to frame the debate or whether to resist him. Should the party accept the Tories' spending plans with some modifications (as it did in 1997), or should it offer a distinct alternative? If it is to win the next election, it must take the latter course. Labour will not triumph on a platform of austerity-lite. Instead, rather than allowing the next election to be defined by austerity, it must ensure it is defined by growth. As Labour MP Gregg McClymont argued last year in a pamphlet for Policy Network, "A patriotic appeal to the nation to improve growth and living standards, not a simple defence of the public sector and public spending, is crucial to foiling Conservative attempts to render Labour the party of a sectional minority."

The frame for Labour's policy offering should be a promise of national reconstruction. Having established a narrative of renewal and growth, it can then move to propose specific institutions such as a British Investment Bank. In 1945, it was Clement Attlee's promise of national revival that allowed him to triumph over the war lion Winston Churchill. Nearly seventy years later, a patriotic vow to "rebuild Britain" could do the same for Miliband.

David Cameron said he doesn’t “see a time” when the government’s austerity programme will end. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.