Clegg shows how the coalition will attack Labour in 2013

The coalition will challenge Labour to say which cuts it would keep and which it would reject, but it shouldn't expect any answers.

Nick Clegg's article in today's Times (£) offers a preview of an attack the coalition will use repeatedly against Labour in 2013: what would you do? In reference to Labour's opposition to the coalition's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent for the next three years, Clegg writes: "Labour must show how they’d pay for it. Would they cut hospital budgets? Schools? Defence?" He also demands that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband say which of the coalition's cuts "they would keep, which they would lose and where they would find the money instead."

But the Deputy PM shouldn't expect answers any time soon. In an end-of-year interview with the Times, Ed Balls signalled that Labour would hold back its key tax and spending commitments until 2015. "Until we know the state of the economy, the state of the public finances and how bad things have turned out, it’s very hard for us to know what we can possibly say."

Balls's argument is a reasonable one. The Office for Budget Responsibility originally expected the economy to grow by 5.7 per cent between the first quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2012. It actually grew by 0.9 per cent. As a result, the coalition is now forecast to borrow £212bn more than planned in June 2010. In view of this record, it would be unwise for Labour to make any hard and fast commitments until the latest moment possible. Balls has gone as far as banning shadow cabinet ministers from saying which cuts they would keep for fear of creating the impression that Labour will be able to reverse all of the others.

But with a Spending Review due to be held later this year, the coalition will begin to challenge Labour to say whether it would match its post-election spending plans, as it did with the Conservatives' in 1997. With little fanfare, the Liberal Democrats have accepted George Osborne's fiscal envelope (which now extends to 2018), if not all of his proposed cuts. For instance, while Clegg successfully rejected Osborne's bid to secure £10bn of additional welfare cuts, limiting the Chancellor to £3.8bn, he did not question the assumption that £10bn of further austerity was necessary, merely that all the savings needed to come from welfare. Whether or not Labour should adopt the same approach is the biggest decision Balls and Miliband will make before the election. A pledge to match the Tories' spending limits would insulate Labour from the charge that it is planning a tax or borrowing "bombshell" but it would enrage the left and the trade unions. I'll have more on this in my column in tomorrow's magazine.

Nick Clegg delivers a speech to the think-tank Centre Forum at The Commonwealth Club on December 17, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000) and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.