Who is winning the economic argument?

Two polls today present a mixed picture.

As crisis engulfs the eurozone, people across Europe are beginning to question whether austerity is, indeed, the only route out to recovery. But what impact is that having on the economic argument in the UK, and what does it mean for the political parties? Two polls out this morning present a rather mixed picture.

A Times/Populus poll (£) shows a thoroughly divided public. A small majority of 51 per cent believe that the government should slow the pace of spending cuts rather than trying to eliminate the structural deficit by 2017. Conversely, 49 per cent of voters back the coalition’s “Plan A”, and want the government to prioritise deficit elimination by 2017, even if that means more cuts. This result has been broadly consistent for 18 months, suggesting that the eurozone crisis and the implementation of cuts have not had much of an effect.

Elsewhere, a Guardian/ICM poll suggests that the eurozone crisis might actually be helping the government, as the public increasingly blames problems in Europe for the new recession in Britain. Asked about four possible culprits, 29 per cent continued to blame debts amassed by Labour, 24 per cent blamed the eurozone, 21 per cent the banks’ reluctance to lend, and just 17 per cent chose the coalition’s cuts. This shows a slight shift away from cuts and towards Europe since the same question was asked last autumn.

Two years into the new government, it is not good for Labour that the public continue to hold them responsible for the country’s economic woes. Both polls show very similar overall ratings, placing Labour on 41 points. Populus has the Tories seven points behind at 33, while ICM places them at 36.

There are several interesting things going on here. The first is that David Cameron’s personal ratings - consistenly higher than his party's - are falling. Last week, I asked whether “Lucky Dave’s” luck was running out, and that image is compounded. ICM gives the Prime Minister a net negative rating of -11, a significant fall since December (when he ranked at +5) and placing him neck and neck with the Labour leader Ed Miliband at -12.

The second area where the coalition has consistently outpolled Labour is on the economy. Although recent polls have suggested that Miliband’s team is closing the gap, today’s results suggest there is still a distance to go. Populus found that 40 per cent of the public backed Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg on the economy, compared with 33 per cent for Miliband and Ed Balls.

ICM’s results mirrored this, finding that when people were asked to put their overall political preferences aside, 44 per cent preferred Osborne and Cameron on the economy, while 35 per cent trusted Miliband and Balls. While this is a substantial lead for the Tories, it’s worth noting that it has been diminishing steadily, from a 21 point gap in December to just nine now.

These polls show a public beginning to fall out of love with the coalition, but not yet confident of the alternative. Eurozone or no eurozone, there is a long way to go yet for Labour to win the economic argument.
 

George Osborne outside 11 Downing Street before presenting his Budget, March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Who is responsible for an austerity violating human rights? Look to New Labour

Labour's record had started to improve under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. 

The UN has made it clear the Government’s austerity programme breaches human rights. This is not because of spending cuts - it is because because those spending cuts target women and disadvantaged groups, particularly disabled people and asylum seekers.

The degree of injustice is staggering. The Coalition Government used a combination of tax increases and benefit cuts to reduce the net income of the poorest tenth of families by 9 per cent. The cuts faced by disabled people are even more extreme. For instance, more than half a million people have lost social care in England (a cut of over 30 per cent). Asylum seekers are now deprived of basic services.

The injustice is also extremely regional, with the deepest cuts falling on Labour heartlands. Today’s austerity comes after decades of decline and neglect by Westminster. Two places that will be most harmed by the next round of cuts are Blackpool (pictured) and Blackburn. These are also places where Labour saw its voters turn to UKIP in 2015, and where the Leave vote was strong.

Unscrupulous leaders don’t confront real problems, instead they offer people scapegoats. Today’s scapegoats are immigrants, asylum seekers, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people. It takes real courage, the kind of courage the late MP Jo Cox showed, not to appease this prejudice, but to challenge it.

The harm caused by austerity is no surprise to Labour MPs. The Centre for Welfare Reform, and many others, have been publishing reports describing the severity and unfairness of the cuts since 2010. Yet, during the Coalition Government, it felt as if Labour’s desire to appear "responsible" led  Labour to distance itself from disadvantaged groups. This austerity-lite strategy was an electoral disaster.

Even more worrying, many of the policies criticised by the UN were created by New Labour or supported by Labour in opposition. The loathed Work Capability Assessment, which is now linked to an increase in suicides, was first developed under New Labour. Only a minority of Labour MPs voted against many of the Government’s so-called "welfare reforms". 

Recently things appeared to improve. For instance, John McDonnell, always an effective ally of disabled people, had begun to take the Government to task for its attacks on the income’s of disabled people. Not only did the media get interested, but even some Tories started to rebel. This is what moral leadership looks like.

Now it looks like Labour is going to lose the plot again. Certainly, to be electable, Labour needs coherent policies, good communication and a degree of self-discipline. But more than this Labour needs to be worth voting for. Without a clear commitment to justice and the courage to speak out on behalf of those most disadvantaged, then Labour is worthless. Its support will disappear, either to the extreme Right or to parties that are prepared to defend human rights.

Dr Simon Duffy is the director of the Centre for Welfare Reform