Is Labour right to focus on "dealing with the deficit"?

Douglas Alexander is the latest shadow cabinet member to speak about cuts -- but this may not be the

Labour has continued it's bid for "economic credibility". The latest shadow cabinet member to throw himself behind the new emphasis on cuts is Douglas Alexander, who told the Guardian:

I don't think the public has yet heard us talking enough about dealing with the deficit, as well as talking about the need to boost growth and jobs.

The shadow foreign secretary's intervention by no means a game-changer, but it does indicate determination from Labour top command to reinforce their new line that they would accept the Tories' cuts if in government.

Balls drew the ire of the unions when he committed Labour to a continued public sector pay freeze (with the proviso that help is given to the low paid). This approach -- accepting cuts, but with caveats -- was continued by Alexander in the Guardian interview, when he said that Labour supported the household benefit cap as long as it does not "render people homeless".

Labour has been criticised for an incoherent message, and early polling did not indicate an instant boost. An ICM/Guardian poll this week asked how the tougher position affected likelihood to support Labour. 72 per cent said it made no difference one way or another; just 10 per cent said it would make them more likely to vote Labour, and 13 per cent said it made them less likely to vote for the party, giving the shift a net rating of minus three.

Of course, it has not yet had much time to bed in, which explains the comments from Alexander, a key strategist. We can expect more Labour figures to add their voices to this new "austerity Labour" pot.

He explained his position thus:

There have always been two parts to the Labour argument - a short-term stimulus now to get the economy moving and medium-term cuts to get the deficit down. It was always vital that we won the first part of that argument - that the government are going too far and too fast - and I think thanks to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls we are winning that argument. But the second half of that argument - that the deficit has to come down - has to be emphasised more, and all of us have a responsibility to make that case. We have talked a lot about the first and we need to talk a lot more about the second"

But is this really the best plan, and have we heard a lot about growth? Ultimately, accepting your opponent's terms makes it look like they were right all along. As my colleague Mehdi Hasan recently argued, it would be far more effective for the party to construct their own narrative:

So what should the alternative, Labour frame be? The answer is obvious: growth and jobs. In November 2011, a YouGov poll found that more voters (37 per cent) wanted the government to focus on growth, "even if this means the deficit stays longer, or gets worse", than on reducing the deficit (36 per cent), "even if this means growth remains slow". Given that YouGov's polls show Labour leading the Conservatives by 18 points on job creation but trailing them by 22 points on deficit reduction, it seems strange to focus all the rhetoric and airtime on closing the deficit gap.

Growth has slowed to a halt (it looks like we're already back in recession) and this is an area where the government is vulnerable. Yet it does not look like the opposition will be taking this easy line of attack any time soon.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496