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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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