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11 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:18pm

On austerity, Labour is winning the small arguments but losing the big one

The opposition has managed to sucessfully argue that individual cuts are unfair. It hasn't been able to do the same for the cuts as a whole.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer will launch Labour’s national election campaign later this morning, ahead of the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections and the local, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections in England, which are all taking place on 6 May. There is a simple top line that the party will hope to see appearing in news bulletins throughout the day: “A vote for Labour is a vote to support our nurses”.

This core message is an effort from Labour to anchor its broader electoral message in the electorally salient issue of the moment: the outcry over the 1 per cent uplift in nurses’ pay (which is below the wage uplift the NHS had budgeted for before the pandemic, and which could amount to a real-terms pay freeze or cut for nurses, depending on inflation). This plays to one of Labour’s strengths: the NHS. Keir Starmer delivered one of his most praised Prime Minister’s Questions performances to date on the issue yesterday, and there is unexpectedly strong opposition to the government’s policy, with a majority believing the 1 per cent rise is too low, including a majority of Conservative voters (unexpected, in my view, if you remember that a majority of the British public support the cut to the aid budget). 

[Hear more from Ailbhe on the New Statesman podcast]

But the seeming inevitability of a government U-turn on this issue encapsulates the problem for Labour: it can have the government running on a particular issue and win, but without winning the overall argument. This isn’t just an argument about nurses’ pay for Labour, but about a wider programme of austerity announced in Rishi Sunak’s Budget and whether that is the appropriate way to manage the economy and rebuild for the future. As Stephen, Anoosh and I discuss on a recent podcast, one of the problems that Labour faced during the Cameron/Osborne era was that it could secure individual government U-turns on issues such as cuts to spending on front line police officers, or cuts to tax credits, but it couldn’t win the overarching argument that cuts in general were the wrong way to approach an economic recovery. 

[see also: The Budget showed Labour needs a radical alternative to Rishi Sunak’s austerity]

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Of course, that is the substance of Starmer’s speech today, as he hopes to set up the May elections as a choice between a Labour Party that will build a stronger, more secure and prosperous recovery out of the pandemic, or a Conservative Party that is cutting nurses’ pay, reducing spending on the NHS and raising taxes on families. It is a classic argument between Labour spending and Conservative austerity, without using those words. 

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Most people won’t hear all of Starmer’s speech. They will hear the top line about nurses’ pay and, given the polling, we know that a majority of them will agree. But this doesn’t mean the public will have heard the wider criticism of cuts in Sunak’s Budget, nor are they likely to hear the bigger-picture thinking from Labour on the economic choice that confronts them. Then, if the government does U-turn on nurses’ pay, the Labour Party will have to move on to something else, which means the spending versus austerity debate amounts to chasing a moving target. 

There isn’t much that Labour can do about that, given what does and doesn’t tend to cut through for an opposition party. But it reveals a fundamental truth for Labour. Whether it wins the bigger argument isn’t so much about what is said between the parties now, but whether the real-world impact of cuts changes people’s minds about the government’s direction. That will be the key to Labour’s success or otherwise in 2024. A lot of that is out of Labour’s hands.  

[see also: The public supports Rishi Sunak’s Budget – but can he make that last?]