The economy: hurting, yes. Working, maybe - but for whom?

Growth that doesn't fix the squeeze on living standards poses a challenge to all parties.

Ken Clarke, the cabinet minister with responsibility for giving mildly revealing interviews, has given a mildly revealing interview to the Daily Telegraph. The item that has grabbed most headlines is the acknowledgement that the government is unlikely to legislate to create a tax break for married couples this parliament. That is disappointing to the Conservative right but not entirely surprising. Tax cuts are a very precious political commodity; the Lib Dems are opposed to this particular one and would demand something juicy in return. The Tory leadership is happy to do those sorts of deals in theory but is not wedded enough [sorry, no pun intended] to the idea of a marriage allowance to squander coalition negotiating capital on it.

Also interesting is Clarke’s line on the economy:

If we are back to strong growth by the next election, we probably won’t need to campaign. If at the next election, the economy is in strong normal growth, George Osborne will be given the Companion of Honour or something and we will all get safe back.

Clarke adds, of course, that such a scenario is supremely unlikely and that a more plausible campaign for the Tories in 2015 is one that advertises them as having a “safe hand on the tiller.” That, along with dark warnings against prematurely handing responsibility for the economy back to Labour – and especially Ed Balls - is bound to be the outline of the Conservative pitch at the next election.  

The news last Thursday that the economy has formally exited recession has opened up a whole new school of political speculation – how does the return of growth change things? This is peculiar in a way because no-one expected the economy to shrink forever. Some recovery was always in prospect. What matters in economic terms is how robust it is. Some pessimists are forecasting a slump back into negative territory – a “triple dip” – most analysts expect weak growth whose benefits will not be widely felt.

Yet politically, Thursday’s positive number has made a difference. There are two reasons for that.

First, Labour MPs and shadow ministers – as I noted in my column last week – were already fretting about their apparent lack of a “fair weather” strategy. The previous week’s relatively buoyant employment figures provoked an attack of nerves, with some anxious consideration of the prospect that the Tory plan might really be working – or be superficially yet plausibly presentable as working. That is really a subset of anxiety about Ed Balls’s handling of the role of shadow chancellor. Broadly speaking he has called the macro-economics of the past two years right. For that he gets a lot of credit in Labour ranks – and among some non-partisan economists. He forecast a double dip and there was one.

But politically he has failed to stick the blame for that recession firmly on the coalition. Opinion polls show a gradual shift on the question of who is more trusted to run the economy – away from the Tories and towards Labour. But given the predictable mid-term dip experienced by any administration and the empirical fact that George Osborne inherited a growing economy and promptly shrank it, the Conservative ratings on the economy are – from Labour’s point of view – shockingly, depressingly good.

The whispering against Balls in the Labour ranks is that he has gambled too much on being vindicated by economics and has misplayed the politics. No-one wants the opposition to be ghoulishly willing the economy to fail. And if, come 2015, it is growing, no-one will be much impressed by a retrospective and unprovable claim that it might have grown sooner and better had the Tories not cut too far too fast in the early stages of the parliament.

That leads to the second obstacle facing Labour, which is psychological as much as political. It is the problem of cognitive dissonance. This is the phenomenon that leads people to unconsciously ignore or reject evidence that challenges a prejudice, because doing so is less painful than recognising and owning up to a fault. In this case, the Liberal Democrats, the Tory-inclined media and quite a few people who voted Conservative all have a profound emotional investment in Ed Balls having been wrong all along. That need will, in most cases, far outweigh the reasonable argument that – in a purely dispassionate account of the economic evidence – he was right. More generally, swing voters who backed coalition parties will be marginally predisposed to give Osborne some economic benefit of the doubt because they don’t want to think – or be told – that ejecting  Labour was an error and that the problems we now face are, to some extent, their own fault.

All of that means that Labour needs to be relentlessly focused on the future. To be fair, Ed Miliband seems to understand this. A crucial point – and an area of great danger for the Tories – is that a return to growth will not end the squeeze on living standards for people in middle of the income scale and below. This recovery will be unlike the bounce back from past recessions. Real wages and the purchasing power of many voters will still feel as if they are shrinking.

Later this week, the Resolution Foundation - the politically neutral think tank that has done more than any institution in Britain to define and highlight the “squeezed middle”  phenomenon – publishes the final report of its Commission on Living Standards. This is an epic piece of work that has drawn testimony and data from a wider range of expert individuals and institutions over the past 18 months. The report will look at various scenarios that might evolve over the next few years and the policy priorities implied by those outcomes. It will be a big mid-week story and makes, from what I have heard, uncomfortable reading in various ways for all political parties.

One thing we already know from past analysis by Resolution and others, such as the IFS, is that many people who consider themselves middle class and who generally expect a growing economy to make them feel more prosperous will reach the next election feeling discernibly poorer than they were in 2010. The political hazard for the Tories is that, even if they try to avoid triumphalism, they will be addressing the electorate with a message that says, in essence, “it hurt but it’s working” and the public will respond by saying “you say it, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way to us.” Or, worse, they will think “working for whom, exactly? You and your rich mates, perhaps, but not for us.”

Understanding that feeling and turning it into support for a different, fairer account of the future under Labour is Ed Miliband’s goal. The question for him and his shadow chancellor is whether or not the pursuit of that target means moving on from the big macro-economic argument of the past two years. It is a painful proposition, especially for Ed Balls. Perhaps he was right all along; perhaps no-one cares.

Good economic news puts the Labour under pressure. Source: Getty

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496