Labour can no longer duck tough choices on spending

If it is to reject Osborne's doom-laden plans, Labour needs to start developing an alternative now.

Within weeks, George Osborne will use the Autumn Statement to announce his spending plans for the early years of the next parliament. He is expected to set out further cuts and in doing so hopes to lay political traps for the opposition, especially on welfare cuts.

Political gamesmanship is trumping compassionate politics. Spending choices should be about how to minimise the pain and suffering families must endure as a result of today's savage economic forces. Instead, the government is intent on targeting the least popular groups and protecting those who are most likely to vote.

The Labour Party can no longer duck questions about what it would do differently with power. It needs to start developing an alternative so that before the next election it has a clear direction on spending to show it is a credible and caring contender for government. And if the Liberal Democrats want to keep open the option of working with Labour after 2015, they too need to say what they would do differently without their Tory partners.

Labour, in particular, will have to find a formula that proves the party can be responsible with the public finances, whilst avoiding being locked into Conservative spending limits. The Tory policy of eliminating the structural deficit by 2017-18 will come at a cost of perhaps £50bn in further cuts or tax rises. By contrast, Barack Obama's re-election shows the political and economic dividends of an offer of intelligent spending in place of grinding austerity.

Much will depend on the state of the economy by 2015, but if growth returns there is scope for cautious optimism. For example, a government can close the deficit over time if it is prepared to freeze public spending while the economy expands. However, the starting point for spending decisions should be the end-point: what do politicians on the left want the public finances to look like by 2020? Of course, the deficit needs to brought under control, but we also need to ask what proportion of the economy should be devoted to public spending. Today, spending remains well above the post-war average of 42 per cent of GDP but Osborne has deliberately planned to overshoot this number in a bid to permanently shrink the size of the state.

Labour could offer a distinctive but mainstream alternative by simply pledging a return to trend. This would mean taking a little longer to close the deficit than the Conservatives plan and substituting tax rises for some of the planned cuts. The result would be more flexibility to address the huge social pressures the economic crisis has caused.

But the need for painful decisions will not disappear if a 2015 government signs up to spending limits which are less severe than Osborne's. Even if spending remains flat overall it will feel like another parliament of austerity, and some budgets will need to shrink to pay for others to grow. Embracing this mathematical inevitability should not be the preserve of the left's self-styled fiscal hawks, who wear a spending hair-shirt as a badge of honour. It's time for an open, frank and respectful conversation, which draws in the full range of opinion on the centre-left.

This week, that process begins with the launch of the Commission on Future Spending Choices. It is a year-long inquiry hosted by the Fabian Society, whose associations with the British welfare state date back more than a century. For we think it is the cheerleaders, not the adversaries of government, who are best placed to consider how the state can live within its means.

The commission will look at where to spend and how to cut. We will explore whether economic reforms can reduce demand for social security or whether cuts to entitlements are needed. We will consider how public service budgets should be shared and question where provision will need to change in the face of perhaps ten years of flat or falling budgets. Lastly, we will consider how public spending can do more to boost growth, employment and earnings.

The left faces hard choices if it is to earn economic credibility but stay true to its values. But the choices are not as bad as the Conservatives would have us believe. Labour can reject Osborne's doom-laden plans and offer an optimistic alternative. But to return to power the alternative must be clearly specified, including the painful decisions. The UK will be far less wealthy in 2020 than anyone would have predicted in 2005 and public spending has to adjust to this reality. But as long as the economy returns to decent growth, Britain can afford a strong and compassionate welfare state.

John McFall is a Labour peer and the former chair of the House of Commons Treasury select committee

Andrew Harrop is the general secretary of the Fabian Society

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on 19 November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

John McFall is a Labour peer and the former chair of the House of Commons Treasury select committee

Andrew Harrop is the general secretary of the Fabian Society

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.