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

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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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