Why the falling deficit could be good news for Labour

The smaller the deficit becomes, the harder it will be for the Conservatives to make it the defining economic issue. Labour can continue to shift the debate to living standards.

So us Keynesians were right when we said that growth is the best antidote to debt. With output finally rising (by as much as 1% in the most recent quarter), the deficit is falling. The latest figures from the ONS show that the government borrowed £11.1bn last month, £1bn less than in September 2012. The total deficit for the year so far is £56.7bn, down from £62.6bn over the same period last year. 

At first glance, this looks like good news for George Osborne. The Chancellor's deficit reduction plan might still be off-track (with austerity extended by three years until 2018) but the fiscal position is better than expected a year ago. When Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement on 4 December, he is likely to announce significantly improved forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility. But there at least two reasons why it's Labour, not the Tories, that could benefit from a falling deficit. 

The first is that the smaller the deficit becomes, the harder it will be for the Conservatives to make it the defining economic issue (their strategy since 2009), allowing Labour to continue to shift the debate towards living standards. Despite Osborne continually missing his borrowing targets (with the government forecast to borrow billions more than Labour planned), the polls show that the Tories still enjoy a large lead in this area: voters believe that the Conservatives are the best party of deficit reduction and are unlikely to change their mind before 2015.

Rather than trying to explain how it would borrow more to borrow less (Keynes's paradox of thrift is ill-suited to a soundbite age), it makes sense for Labour to reframe the economic debate around prices and wages. While voters think that the Tories are more likely to maintain economic growth (42-33%) and to keep public spending under control (47-28%), they believe their own family would be better off under Labour (41-31%) and that Miliband's party is more likely to keep prices down than Cameron's (48-21%). As I revealed last week, Labour's strategy has been inspired by Barack Obama's successful 2012 campaign. A report on the election by the veteran Democrat Stan Greenberg for Miliband pointed to polls showing that while Mitt Romney had led on "handling the economy"(51-44%) and "reducing the federal budget deficit" (51-37%), Obama had led on understanding "the economic problems ordinary people in this country are having" (51-43%) and on "looking out for the middle class" (51-40%).

The second reason for Labour optimism is that accelerated deficit reduction means it will inherit a less dire fiscal position if it wins the election. The more borrowing shrinks now, the fewer cuts Labour will have to promise after 2015. With Osborne likely to use the extra revenue to offer tax cuts and other pre-election sweeteners, rather than return to his original deficit reduction timetable, the party will have the opportunity to offer an alternative centred around investment in its priority areas of employment, infrastructure, social care and childcare. 

Labour won three elections between 1997 and 2010 because voters preferred greater spending on public services to tax cuts. With the return of growth, this familiar battle is coming into view - and history is on Miliband's side.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.