Leader: The new realism

The challenge is to build, within those constraints, a project that is distinct from the coalition’s offer of slow immiseration for the many and impunity for the few.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have been forced to acknowledge their tricky position on the wrong side of public opinion on two vital questions. On the economy, there is suspicion that excessive spending by the last government is the cause of current misery. On welfare, many voters think that Labour presided over a system that rewarded idleness.

The challenge for the party leadership is to recognise the public mood without accepting so much blame as to do the Tories’ work for them. In co-ordinated speeches, the two Eds have set about that task. Mr Balls has clarified his approach to the public finances in the light of bleak forecasts. He does not envisage a future Labour government spending more in its early years than the coalition plans to do. Meanwhile, Mr Miliband has set out new ideas about social security that emphasise the link between contributions paid in and benefits paid out. This is to address the charge that the system doles out “something for nothing”. Labour has also accepted that the total welfare spend will have to be capped and that certain coalition cuts – say, to child benefit – would not be reversed.

One concern is that making benefits more conditional than universal is an intellectual surrender to enemies of the welfare state. There is also anxiety that oaths of fiscal discipline are a conversion to Conservative economics.

Those concerns can be assuaged. The principle of universal welfare does not dissolve in targeted cuts. The greater threat is a decline in the perceived legitimacy of taxpayer-funded benefits, a process that is accelerated if Labour cannot articulate voters’ concerns. Likewise, Labour cannot credibly offer an alternative to the coalition without acknowledging fiscal constraints.

The challenge is to build, within those constraints, a project that is distinct from the coalition’s offer of slow immiseration for the many and impunity for the few.

Labour’s new realism about spending limits is a necessary step towards winning over sceptical voters – but if it represents the limits of its imagination as it attempts to create a new political consensus, then the party is in trouble.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Donald Trump's healthcare failure could be to his advantage

The appearance of weakness is less electorally damaging than actually removing healthcare from millions of people.

Good morning. Is it all over for Donald Trump? His approval ratings have cratered to below 40%. Now his attempt to dismantle Barack Obama's healthcare reforms have hit serious resistance from within the Republican Party, adding to the failures and retreats of his early days in office.

The problem for the GOP is that their opposition to Obamacare had more to do with the word "Obama" than the word "care". The previous President opted for a right-wing solution to the problem of the uninsured in a doomed attempt to secure bipartisan support for his healthcare reform. The politician with the biggest impact on the structures of the Affordable Care Act is Mitt Romney.

But now that the Republicans control all three branches of government they are left in a situation where they have no alternative to Obamacare that wouldn't either a) shred conservative orthodoxies on healthcare or b) create numerous and angry losers in their constituencies. The difficulties for Trump's proposal is that it does a bit of both.

Now the man who ran on his ability to cut a deal has been forced to make a take it or leave plea to Republicans in the House of Representatives: vote for this plan or say goodbye to any chance of repealing Obamacare.

But that's probably good news for Trump. The appearance of weakness and failure is less electorally damaging than actually succeeding in removing healthcare from millions of people, including people who voted for Trump.

Trump won his first term because his own negatives as a candidate weren't quite enough to drag him down on a night when he underperformed Republican candidates across the country. The historical trends all make it hard for a first-term incumbent to lose. So far, Trump's administration is largely being frustrated by the Republican establishment though he is succeeding in leveraging the Presidency for the benefit of his business empire.

But it may be that in the failure to get anything done he succeeds in once again riding Republican coattails to victory in 2020.

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