Why the Tories are cheering Osborne's public sector job cull

The party believes that a smaller public sector will help it win a majority.

Those on the right who are fond of claiming that George Osborne's cuts are almost non-existent should look closely at the latest employment figures. They show that the coalition has cut 432,000 government jobs since the election (with an additional 196,000 reclassified as private sector posts), reducing the public sector workforce to its smallest level since 2001 (see graph). And Osborne isn't done yet. By 2017, according to the most recent OBR forecast, the government will have cut a further 298,000, bringing the total number lost to 730,000. In the words of the usually restrained Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, we are witnessing "a tectonic shift in the underlying structure of the labour market".

What explains this dramatic cull? Fiscal considerations, naturally, play their part. Borrowing for 2012-16 will be around £174.9bn higher than originally expected (see the Bank of England's latest summary of independent forecasts) and Osborne wrongly believes that slashing the state is the best way to reduce it. In an inversion of Keynes, he thinks that if you take care of the deficit, unemployment will take care of itself (joblessness has fallen in recent months, but forecasters expect it to rise to 2.7m next year).  But Osborne, who is both Chancellor and the Conservatives’ chief electoral strategist, also has political considerations in mind. While in opposition, the Tories frequently complained that Labour's "client state" made the election of a Conservative government impossible, so, in office, they have reduced it. As one senior Tory told the Spectator’s James Forsyth, "You create a bigger private sector, you create more Tories."

The polls certainly suggest as much. Data published last month by Ipsos MORI (see graph above) showed that while Labour enjoys a 35-point lead among public sector workers, it trails the Tories by a point among their private sector counterparts (Labour leads by 39 to 35 points among the voluntary sector). Logic says that if you reduce the former group and expand the latter (the OBR forecasts an extra 1.7 million private sector workers by 2017), the Tories will benefit. A smaller public sector means fewer people with a vested interest in high levels of state spending.

The Tories aren't naïve enough to think that they'll immediately benefit from putting Labour voters on the dole, rather they believe that, over time, a labour market in which the public sector plays a smaller role will smooth their path to a majority. Osborne may claim that his cuts are born of necessity, rather than ideology, but, as ever with the Chancellor, politics is on his mind too.

George Osborne plans to cut 730,000 public sector jobs by 2017. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496