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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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