Osborne thinks budget discipline is Labour's biggest weakness. He's not wrong

Both Miliband and Balls know they need to do more if people are going to be persuaded to put them in charge of public money.

There isn’t much doubt which side enjoyed the Autumn Statement more in the Commons chamber. Tory MPs wore gleeful looks that showed they thought the Chancellor had planted his ball firmly in the back of Ed Balls’s net. They cheered with terrace gusto. Labour MPs looked solemn and attentive. Perhaps their expressions were meant to project scorn and disbelief at what George Osborne was saying. They could also be interpreted as masks of defeat.

The mood imbalance was, to an extent, inevitable. The focus of the Autumn Statement was things the Chancellor wants to talk about and things Labour says are missing the point. Osborne boasts that the economy is growing lustily. Labour asserts that people aren’t feeling it in the marginals. Osborne declares that his plan for fiscal prudence has delivered the stability from which future prosperity will flourish. Balls says Osborne’s plan has left voters feeling out of pocket.

The Tories think they have won the biggest argument of the parliament – the question of who was to blame for the economic mess and who is best qualified to clear it up. Labour think, or at least hope, that there is a bigger argument about who the economy serves, who can be trusted to look after ordinary people, and that the Tories are ill-equipped to meet that challenge.

The problem for Labour today was that Osborne got to set the terms of the debate, so Balls arguing vigorously in the debate he would rather be having sounded close to a capitulation. When he accused the Chancellor of being in denial, the charge ricocheted back in his face. The Tories guffawed merrily. The Labour leadership – both Eds – remain confident of having the last laugh, to the extent that the macroeconomic indicators fuelling Conservative levity conceal real pain that will cost the government votes. The economy that Tory MPs were cheering is on paper; the one Labour’s cost of living campaign focuses on is in winnable constituencies. That’s the theory, at least.

But what today also demonstrated is that Osborne believes Labour’s reputation for overspending is terminally toxic. One of the Chancellor’s favourite gambits is engineering parliamentary debates exclusively to force Labour MPs to vote against something that most voters think is sensible. This device has been deployed with some effect over welfare reform, challenging the opposition to advertise their squeamishness about benefit cuts, which they duly did.

Today, Osborne gave advance notice of the next trick he will pull from the same box. He intends to put a "Charter For Budget Responsibility" before parliament next autumn, reaffirming the coalition parties’ determination to press ahead with the current trajectory of deficit reduction. The tactical logic behind this move is clear. It means that, six months before a general election, Labour will have to choose between endorsing the government’s economic policy (which they won’t do) and voting against prudent budgeting (which they will insist is a principle they cherish).

The standard Labour line in response to these Osborne stunts is to denounce them as cynical game-playing, unworthy of indulgence by a serious opposition whose eyes are fixed on the higher prize of transforming Britain’s economy and society for the better. Etc.

For nervous Labour MPs that can sound rather like a declaration of intent to walk straight into the trap, although Ed Miliband probably has more leeway with his own side now than he did a year or two ago. Since the party’s successful conference – and the energy price freeze pledge that disoriented the Tories for weeks – there is more patience in the parliamentary Labour party for Miliband’s insistence on doing things "in his own time, on his own terms."

Still, after today, I suspect there will be increased pressure for one of those things to be a clearer line on long-term fiscal policy. Both Eds have said repeatedly in speeches and interviews that they recognise the spending constraints under which a future Labour government would operate. Osborne clearly thinks that message hasn’t reached the public and that he can continue pummelling Labour as the party that opposes every cut, while plotting to raise taxes, borrow and spend like Topsy.

Privately, senior Labour figures concede that this is a weakness. Both Eds know they need to do more if people are going to be persuaded to put them in charge of public money. There is, behind the scenes, a rolling discussion about the kind of measures and policies that will help Labour "cut through" with its determination to be prudent. The lesson that Miliband has learned from the energy price freeze is that voters don’t listen to vague declarations of intent. Many actively avoid anything the sounds like politics. So to get their attention, you need something big, bold, easy to understand and unignorable.

There are many on the Labour side who would like to get through a campaign without having to apply that logic to the delicate matter of budget discipline. Perhaps it can be avoided. The Eds may be right that a cost of living crisis will soon wipe the grins from Tory faces and that Osborne’s attempt to force the debate back to his preferred terms, while effective in the Commons today, will have diminishing returns over time. But the looks of unease on the Labour benches today suggest the party is still uncomfortable when the conversation turns to balancing the books. That is a weakness of which Balls will be well aware. I imagine the shadow Chancellor will be marching some sacred spending cow to the slaughter before polling day. 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.