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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Labour MPs believe Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of tackling anti-Semitism

The leader's insistence that "there's no crisis" has led more to conclude that he must be removed.  

In a competitive field, yesterday was the most surreal - and shameful - day for Labour since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. After a telling delay, Corbyn arrived at the only response that was acceptable to MPs: the suspension of Ken Livingstone. The former mayor of London, who appears incapable of entering a studio without triggering outrage, surpassed himself by claiming Hitler supported Zionism (as if to invalidate the latter). In time-honoured fashion, he then responded to criticism by pouring petrol on the fire. In remarks that caused journalists to question their hearing, Livingstone opined that "a real anti-Semite doesn't just hate the Jews in Israel". 

Two hours later, one of Corbyn's greatest allies was finally suspended (the day after Naz Shah MP had been). But the announcement itself added new offence. The email confirming Livingstone's suspension simultaneously revealed that John Mann MP, who had denounced the former mayor as a "Nazi apologist", had been summoned by the chief whip to "discuss his conduct" - as if their behaviour was somehow comparable. Labour sources later told me that Corbyn's office had wanted to go further and suspend Mann - a demand flatly rejected by the whips. Their resistance has revived the desire among some of the leader's allies for a cull in a future reshuffle. 

But it was Corbyn's conduct in a BBC interview that truly provoked MPs' fury. "It's not a crisis, there's no crisis," he declared, unwittingly echoing the Sun's headline on Jim Callaghan during the Winter of Discontent ("Crisis? What crisis?"). It was as if Hitlergate had never happened. Corbyn added that "the party membership is the biggest it has been in my lifetime" (it was actually higher in 1997) and that "much of this criticism that you are saying about a crisis in the party actually comes from those who are nervous of the strength of the Labour Party at local level". MPs, he appeared to suggest, were not motivated by a desire to repel Labour's anti-Semitic infection but by fear of the party's left-wing membership.

Livingstone's suspension was "very sad", Corbyn said, but "there is a responsibility to lead the party". The abiding impression was that he had suspended his old comrade with the utmost reluctance - it was the burden of office that had forced him to do so. Finally, Corbyn declared, as he always does on these too-frequent occasions, "we are not tolerating anti-Semitism in any way or indeed any other kind of racism." Labour's leader appears congenitally incapable of condemning Jew-hatred in insolation. The explanation, some MPs say, is that he subscribes to a "hierarchy of racism" under which anti-Semitism is a lesser offence than, say, Islamophobia. In rejecting a systematic focus on the former, Corbyn's critics say he is in denial about the scale and significance of the infestation.  

His apathy has intensified the desire of his opponents to remove him before the year is out. "The soft left moved massively today," one MP told me in reference to Labour's internal swing voters. Another said: "It does two things: it firmly pins responsibility for next week's results on the hard-left antics [Labour is forecast to become the first opposition since 1985 to lose council seats in a non-general election year] and it weakens the willingness of the 'core group' servers to keep mopping up after Corbyn because they are increasingly mortified by the association". But others disagreed: "It's strangely less likely," one said of the prospect of a challenge, "the mood is 'keep giving him the rope'". Another said that Labour MPs, traditionally sentimental towards their leaders, lacked the "constitution" for the struggle. "They can always find an excuse why now isn't the right time," he lamented. Without an agreed candidate, and without even agreement on whether there should be a challenge, Corbyn's opponents fear that "even worse is to come". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.