Time to drop the dishonest “Tories cut, Labour invests” mantra

Labour party members recently received a circular message purporting to come from Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, although — to be charitable — it seems unlikely that Mr Balls had ever seen it.  The message described “our radical new school reforms“, and asserted that “that these plans and all of our achievements would be put at risk by the Tories and their plans to cut 10 per cent from education budgets.”  Party members were urged to

write to your local newspaper and ask local Conservative candidates how many local schools and how many teachers would be cut under their plans. …Tory cuts of 10 per cent across the board would mean fewer teachers and classroom assistants, making it much harder to keep discipline and order in the classroom. The Tories in Westminster are simply refusing to go into detail about exactly what their cuts would mean for our schools and so I need you to help me expose them at a local level – where the cuts will be felt hardest.

All this is of course designed to reinforce the current party line:  the Tories will cut public services by 10%, whereas if re-elected, Labour will continue to ‘invest’ in them.  The figure of 10% is derived from a remark made, perhaps incautiously, by a Tory front-bench spokesman, the shadow health secretary:

“We are going to increase the resources for the NHS, we are going to increase resources for international development aid. We are going to increase resources for schools. But that does mean over three years after 2011 a 10 per cent reduction in the departmental expenditure limits for other departments.”
Andrew Lansley, BBC Today Programme, 10 June 2009

The Conservatives have extensively re-interpreted Lansley’s remark, but it has by now passed into Labour folklore and nothing will remove it.

But if the Tories scored an apparent (but not necessarily an actual) own goal with their 10% cuts, the prime minister and other Labour spokesmen have outdone them with their efforts to persuade a rightly disbelieving electorate that unlike the Tories, a re-elected Labour government would actually increase capital expenditure, year by year, even as the country and the world are expected to emerge from the recession with an unprecedented load of debt needing to start being paid off.  This claim is made the more incredible by the figures in the Treasury’s own budget Red Book which shows a steep decline in forecast capital expenditure in each of the three years from 2011/12, apparently contradicting Gordon Brown’s assertion.  The government’s explanation of the discrepancy, gleefully seized on by David Cameron in parliament and all over the media, is either that the Red Book figures endlessly quoted by the Tories take no account of planned asset sales, shown elsewhere in the statistics,  or alternatively that the apparent decline in capital expenditure is an optical illusion caused by the decision to bring forward slabs of capital spending to an earlier date, as part of the fiscal stimulus to the economy to limit the effects of the recession and accelerate the country’s recovery from it.  The implication is that by advancing some spending originally planned for three years’ time to this year or next, the figures for later years will seem to decline but the overall total over the period will remain the same.

Both explanations will strike most sensible people as too clever by half.  In a reply to the circular purporting to come from Mr Balls, I pointed out that

Someone in the party machine ought to have woken up by now to the widespread public disgust, shared by many of us at the grass roots, at the government’s (and the Labour party’s) refusal to acknowledge the reality that whatever government is in power when the country begins to emerge from recession is going to have to make significant cuts in government spending and also greatly to increase taxes, in order to make a start on paying off the gigantic national debt incurred as part of the cost of bailing out the banks and stimulating the economy to avert a full-scale slump. To go on mechanically denouncing the Tories as the party that wants to impose spending cuts (with the unavoidable implication that a Labour government will not) is simply dishonest, and almost everyone knows it.

Thus what was probably originally a blunder (or, as the media love to say in their nursery-speak, a ‘gaffe’) by Mr Lansley is now widely seen as a frank, honest and rather courageous acknowledgement of the economic realities, while Gordon Brown’s (and Mr Balls’s, if he really wrote or approved the circular) attacks on the Tories for promising swingeing cuts, while Labour promises actually to increase government spending, appear both dishonest and, perhaps worse, obviously and simple-mindedly dishonest.

This ham-fisted campaign is a tragedy for Labour.  In my response to the disastrous circular, I suggested that the current line was depriving the government and the party of a different and much more positive line which would have the incidental advantages of being both truthful and credible:

  • First, show that the measures taken by the government to deal with the banking crisis and the recession were sound, and widely recognised as such throughout the western world; that they are beginning to take effect, although there’s still a long way to go; and that they unavoidably entail borrowing on an unprecedented scale.
  • Secondly, recall that these measures were scathingly opposed by the Tories, whose counter-proposals would have deepened and prolonged the recession.
  • Thirdly, point out that while all three major parties agree that the huge debts incurred in rescuing the banks and averting a slump will have to be paid off and that this will inevitably mean severe cuts in government expenditure and selective increases in taxes, a Labour government would embark on those cuts and tax increases only after Britain begins to come out of the recession, whereas the Tories want to start cutting government expenditure (and actually reducing some taxes!) immediately, in mid-recession, an economically illiterate policy certain to make an already bad situation even worse.
  • Fourthly, express the suspicion that Tory cuts and tax increases would be mainly arbitrary and across-the-board, thus hitting hardest the least well off and the most vulnerable, whereas Labour will target cuts and tax increases that will so far as possible protect the most vulnerable and ensure that the bulk of the burden is carried by those best able to bear it.  (But this will mean coming clean about broadly which spending cuts and which taxes Labour will focus on, instead of keeping up the shameful pretence that Labour will somehow be able actually to increase spending and avoid the need for increased taxation.)

Labour spokesmen are already using parts of this formula.  But it will fall flat as long as the government and the party leadership keep up the absurd pretence that a Tory government will impose fierce cuts on spending if elected next year (and will be wrong to do so), while a re-elected Labour government will not cut spending but will actually increase it.  As a Tory doctor and politician, the “Radio Doctor”, almost said in a then famous Conservative party political  broadcast long before most readers of this were born, in an effective attack on a prominent Labour-supporting novelist, “Chuck it, Gordon!”  And a note to Ed Balls:  do find out who is sending out this terrible stuff in your name, and tell him to stop.  You might also usefully make a point of disowning it.

Postscript: Since I wrote this, my most scathing and pungent critic (Reader, I married her) has shown me a  remarkable leading article in the Spectator magazine which refers to some instructive communications from the same Mr Balls. The Schools Secretary — for it was he — objected furiously, it seems, to a Spectator blog post on much the same lines as parts of this, if in blunter language, demanding strenuously that the Spectator should ‘take it down’.  (Happily, we can still read the offending post here.)  Now Matthew d’Ancona, the editor of the Spectator and one of the recipients of the angry calls from Mr Balls, confirms the story with even greater relish in his column in the Observer of 5 July. Oh, dear.  Perhaps Ed did write that circular after all.


2 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    Why doesn’t Mr Brown just say something like, “New Labour is committed to increasing expenditure on, for example, defence by -7.4%?”
    Wouldn’t that make everybody happy?

    Brian writes: It would certainly generate a wintry smile on my face, if no-one else’s!

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