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Ignore the mantra of misinformation

Labour needs to counter the coalition’s distortions by reminding the public of its record.

There is much to be admired in the simplicity and repetitiveness of the government's message on the economy. It goes like this: Labour bequeathed the biggest postwar deficit in our history; Labour had no plan to tackle it; the measures announced in the emergency Budget by George Osborne in June are fair and unavoidable, and a mess created by one party alone is having to be cleared up by two working together. A chip has been implanted in the brains of government MPs and ministers to be activated by the Chief Whip to repeat this message as and when required. It is certainly a mantra, but one with no trace of the meditation that such chants are meant to induce.

Our response is less conducive to an accompanying drumbeat. If we hadn't bequeathed a deficit, we would be in the grip of a depression; of course we had a plan - it's called the March Budget. And if we had no plan, why is the government (wrongly) claiming that it is cutting departmental budgets by less than we would have? The measures are unfair (as effectively demonstrated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies) and distinctly avoidable - witness the G20 Toronto Declaration in July and the rarely quoted bit of the IMF mission report on the British economy that details the "sizeable" downside risks of the government's fiscal consolidation. The price we were paying to borrow was falling consistently before the election and there was absolutely no possibility of the UK becoming Greece.

Good record

As for the two parties working together, one of them told the British people that it would be foolish to rush into the significant cuts they are now implementing, both of them said they would not increase VAT and, having both opposed any contribution by graduates to the cost of their university education, they are now working together to ensure that most students pay the complete cost.

Our mantra should be this: Labour's record was good. Our education and health are much improved, with new schools and hospitals and much-needed equipment. Crime is at its lowest level in 30 years. We managed an economy with controlled inflation and low interest rates that was open to investment and innovation, and we did it while supporting the poor and vulnerable. We achieved the highest rate of employment ever in this country and when the global banking crisis struck we had the second- lowest debt level of any major economy.

Our message is simple but it is far more accurate than the nonsense being spread by our political enemies. George Osborne even claimed we were on the brink of bankruptcy. As Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has pointed out, actual and prospective public debt in this country is below (and will remain below) the average of the past two centuries. Two hundred years is a long time to be on the brink of financial collapse.

But the principal charge against the government isn't their distortion or their dishonesty, it's their incompetence. Their enthusiasm for cuts with no consultation and no assessment of the consequences has produced aircraft carriers with no planes, a "cap" on migration that manages to hurt our economy while affecting only a third of 1 per cent of those coming into this country, an "unenforceable" change to child benefit, as well as the fiasco surrounding Michael Gove's various announcements on Building Schools for the Future.

Had Labour won the election, we would be bringing down the deficit at a slower, more measured pace with greater flexibility to adjust to the changes in the financial climate as countries around the world head into the same difficult waters of fiscal consolidation.

The difference of £40bn between what we would cut from the deficit over the next few years and what the government intends to cut is the difference between natural wastage and compulsory redundancy; between making difficult but necessary reforms to benefits and hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. It's the difference between claiming to have found more money for poorer pupils and genuinely ensuring that funding for each pupil continues to rise. It's the difference between a policy of welfare-to-waste and welfare-to-work.

Stockholm syndrome

I find the coalition's approach objectionable on a personal as well as political level. The government spouts the importance of aspiration and the need for social mobility, but has no real-life experience of the factors involved. The lack of social diversity among the Lib Dems is even more pronounced than among the Tories. This may explain their plans on Education Maintenance Allowance, security of tenure for council houses, housing benefit, time-limited benefits and their opposition to our objective of having half of 18-to-30-year-olds in higher education.

Since the election, the Tories (along with their Stockholm syndrome-suffering coalition partners) have been effective at "narrating" the recession. We need to un-narrate it fast. With a new leader and a freshly elected shadow cabinet, it would be natural to draw a line under past actions and concentrate all our attentions on future policy. Such is the Orwellian level of misinformation about Labour's record in government, however, that it requires us to return again and again to our economic record.

As Ed Miliband has said, we made mistakes in government - perfection was never a state to which we aspired. But to suggest that our handling of the economy through the global financial crisis was an error, when it propelled us out of recession with lower unemployment and fewer repossessions than predicted, and still fuels the growth in the economy that we've seen in the first three quarters of this year, suggests a level of deliberate deceit that goes well beyond the normal cut and thrust of British politics.

Alan Johnson is shadow chancellor and MP for Hull West and Hessle

Alan Johnson is a former home secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided