Losing the argument on cuts

David Cameron continues to preach to the converted.

At Left Foot Forward, the Fabian Society's Sunder Katwala offers a very interesting analysis of the debate over the government's deficit reduction and spending cuts programme. Katwala's principal claim is that the government has "lost ground over one of its central arguments" – that the cuts will "meet the fairness test".

Using YouGov polling which asked voters, between June and December 2010, whether they thought the spending cuts were being done fairly or unfairly, Katwala has produced a "fair cuts index" which appears to show pretty conclusively that popular attitudes have shifted decisively against the government, By mid-September, the index showed a net fairness rating of -21. And the Spending Review the following month failed to yield a "fairness bounce" for the government. There is a lesson to be drawn from this, he says:

[O]pponents of the government's agenda have been relatively effective – on the question of fairness – at persuading the middle ground of public opinion, while the government appears to have been much more guilty of preaching only to the already converted. The attitudes data presents an important blow to a government "narrative" that all reasonable people understand that the cuts are necessary and fair – and that the opposition is made up of a smattering of "denialists" and refuseniks who would always oppose everything they do. This is a popular argument with commentators who champion the government – but it does not seem to be persuading many people beyond the core 30 per cent of the electorate who have always been satisfied with the government's strategy. The content and tone of the government's "there is no alternative" argument risks patronising a considerable swath of opinion, which was at least open to the government's argument six months ago.

If his appearance this morning on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show is anything to go by, that's a lesson that David Cameron has yet to learn – he was deploying "Tina" for all it was worth. Marr in fact raised the issue of fairness, pointing out that VAT, which the government has raised to 20 per cent, is a regressive tax.

Cameron played a dead bat and dodged the question: "You have to ask . . . what if we weren't dealing with the deficit." As if the government had no alternative to raising VAT. Indeed, he stuck to the Tories' pre-election playbook throughout the interview. So there were the ritual invocations of "Labour's job tax", numerous reminders of the "vast pit of debt [the government was] left" and the "mess" the coalition inherited in May.

He even conjured the spectres of Ireland and Greece, though, as David Blanchflower points out in the current issue of the New Statesman, "What has happened in Greece and Ireland is largely irrelevant." And there was barely a word about "fairness".

Katwala ends his piece by observing that the government is coming under pressure from the "anti-egalitarian right" to abandon talk of fairness altogether:

Supporters of the government from the anti-egalitarian right – voiced by Policy Exchange and ConservativeHome – is that the coalition government made a mistake in making the "fairness" claim for its deficit reduction programme, and an even bigger one in seeming to accept distributional analysis as an important part of "fairness". The argument is that the government should drop the fairness claim – or at least reframe it, rejecting distributional analysis in favour of a different argument about who deserves what. The housing benefit argument is one area where the government is trying to do this.

Whether reframing the debate as one of desert will be a more effective strategy for the government remains to be seen. But this is a useful reminder to those on the egalitarian left that considerations of desert and reciprocity have been as important a part of the debate about "fairness" in this country as have questions about redistribution.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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