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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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