In this week’s New Statesman: 2013 – The year the cuts finally bite

Rafael Behr and George Eaton map out the political and economic battles to come. PLUS: A cultural guide to the year ahead

Rafael Behr: Playing the long game

Reporting from inside Westminster, Rafael Behr takes a look at the year ahead. He predictsthat 2013 will be a year of even deeper divisions among the Tories and new opportunities for Labour. But will Ed Miliband have the courage to seize the initiative? Behr outlines the critical issues:

It got easier in 2012 to imagine Ed Miliband becoming Britain’s next prime minister – but not at the same rate as it got easier to imagine David Cameron losing thenext general election. The coalition is shedding credibility faster than the opposition is acquiring it . . .

Many will be hit by tax and benefit changes due to come into effect in April. Deferred cuts to child benefit and tax credits will kick in. As the squeeze on local authorities tightens, non-essential services will start to disappear and essential ones will look shabbier.

That is also when council-tax reforms – and cuts to the support for those who can’t pay – come into force. With the arrival of the new system, bills will be landing on the doormats of families that have never previously faced the levy. Many will already be struggling to keep their heads above water . . .

Miliband’s gamble for 2013 is that voters will recoil from the social consequences of the cuts, seeing them not as the necessary price of consolidating the Budget but as a familiar symptom of Tory flint-heartedness . . .

Cameron’s confidence is bolstered by opinion polls showing that the Labour leader is lagging in measures of strength and charisma. The Tories are pinning their hopes on a presidential-style campaign, inviting voters to consider which party leader has the courage to see through the task of consolidating the Budget. The message, in the words of one Cameron ally, will be “you can’t change the general in the middle of a war” . . .

Miliband’s policy prospectus still wilts under interrogation. The crucial advantagehe has is that his party is united in willing him to succeed. The same cannot be said of Cameron.

George Eaton: Will Labour dance to the Chancellor’s baseline?

Writing in the Politics Column this week, George Eaton discusses ‘the biggest decision’ Labour will make this year: to match or not to match the Chancellor’s ‘baseline’:

One of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is ‘the baseline’. With the aid of a small army of civil servants, the governing party is able to outline its post-election spending plans in advance (‘the baseline’) and challenge the opposition to match them. Should it fail to do so, punishment is swift. A Conservative government will accuse Labour of planning to clobber Middle England with tax rises; a Labour government will accuse the Conservatives of planning savage cuts to public services. The electorate, fearful of the unknown, usually sides with the government.

… Now in possession of the baseline, Obsorne intends to use it to check Labour’s advance. After this year’s spending review the Chancellor will challenge the opposition to say whether it would match his spending plans up tot 2018. Whether or not to do so is the biggest decision Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will make before the next election. If they accept Osborne’s baseline, the left and the trade unions will accuse them of embracing ‘Tory cuts’. If they reject it, the Chancellor will accuse them of planning billions in additional borrowing or tax rises.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Edward Platt: The drowned world

Our reporter at large Edward Platt writes from Tewkesbury, a town ravaged by flooding in recent years. He argues that as our planet warms, extreme weather is becoming a part of our daily life – but Britain is still ill-equipped to cope with the costs and consequences. He begins:

I arrived in Tewkesbury on the November day the flood waters began to subside. The Swilgate, the tributary of the Avon that runs round the southern edge of the town, had overflown its banks fours days earlier. The dark brown water had spilled across a car park and playground and was lapping at the edge of the site of the new hospital, which is being built beside the old one. The line of trees rising through the middle of the placid expanse of water was the only indication of the Swilgate’s normal course . . .

The floods of 2007 are often described as the worst civil emergency in British history, and the Environment Agency estimates that they caused £3.2bn of damage. The true figure is probably higher, because places such as Tewkesbury suffered a “double whammy”, according to Paul Williams [the vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey]: its shops, hotels and restaurants depend on the tourist trade and many people cancelled holidays in the aftermath of the floods. He says it took Tewkesbury three or four years to recover, and many people in the town are still feeling the effects . . .

They are not alone: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says 5.2 million households in England are at risk of flooding, and the present agreement between the insurance industry and the government that guarantees affordable insurance to flood-prone homes is due to expire in June . . .

It is estimated that every £1 spent on flood defences saves £8 on the cost of clean-up and repairs. And yet, no matter how much we invest, flood damage is sure to increase as climate change begins to take effect. A report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2004 predicted that the cost could increase from the current yearly average of £2.2bn to as much as £29bn by 2080.

Kevin Barry: Roma Kid

Kevin Barry, author of ‘Dark Lies the Island’, writes a new short story exclusively for the New Statesman.

She watched her brothers sleeping but not for long and left them in the grey dim haze of a February morning that was not yet half to life; she did not speak the language but understood plainly the tone of the officials and their knotted gestures and their faces. Her mother had told her nothing but the girl knew that soon

the family would be sent home again and she would not go back there. She was nine years old and chose for her leaving the red pattern dress and zipped her anorak over it.

She went quietly among the chalets of the asylum park. She held the zipper of the anorak between her lips and its cold metal stuck fast to her lips – it was a ritual of her safe passage to hold it there until she was clear of the park. She did not look back at all and no voices rose to call her back. She walked out to the foreignness of the morning. She climbed the embankment. She had none of the words that appeared on

the advertising boards by the motorway as she walked in her squeaking trainers along its verges. She did not have the words on the side of the bus that passed by and was lit against the morning and she had none of the pitying words that formed on the mouths of the passengers who stared out at the thin child in a dress of red paisley, ragged, and an anorak –

Poor knacker child.

Poor pavee kid.

Poor latchiko.

In the critics

In the Critics section this week, our lead book reviewer is the writer and critic Jane Shilling.She reviews The Examined Life by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, and comments:

As a reminder of the strangeness of human existence, the myriad ways we find of making ourselves unhappy and the perplexing resourcefulness of the unconscious mind, Grosz’s book is a worthwhile addition to the literature of the examined life.

Also in Books:

Vernon Bogdanor reviews An English Affair, Richard Davenport-Hines’s history of the Profumo affair

Claire Lowdon on First Novel by Nicholas Royle

The NS culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, looks forward to the big books of 2013.

Our Critic at Large this week is the Australian author Tim Winton, who recalls his role in the campaign to save Ningaloo Reef, off the coast of Western Australia (“For two years, I more or less gave up being a writer. I wrote only press releases, begging letters, strategic notes”).

Elsewhere in The Critics: our writers look forward to what 2013 has to offer in television, visual art, film, classical music, pop and theatre.

 

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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