Tuesday, June 18, 2013

New brooms, same old story: why no-one is responsible for the cuts

One of the many terminally infuriating things about what passes for political debate in Britain at the moment is the government’s relentless repetition of the mantra “the mess that Labour left us”. A cursory search of TheyWorkForYou shows that in the last month or so alone, it’s been trotted out in parliament by David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, Nick Cleggtwice – and Treasury Minister Sajid Javid, who managed to crowbar it into his announcement of Stephen Hester’s departure from RBS.

Reaching back a little further, examples continue to abound with tedious regularity. Here’s Danny Alexander writing in the Telegraph in April: “It has not been easy cleaning up the mess left by the last Labour government”. Who could forget Boris’s speech to Tory conference last year, hilariously likening himself to a mop and David Cameron to “a broom that is cleaning up the mess left by the Labour government.” 

Or how about Eric Pickles’ speech to the National Conservative Convention in March: “Nearly three years on and we are still trotting out the same tired soundbites.” Oops, sorry: obviously that should have been “Nearly three years on and we are still [all together now…] clearing up the mess left by Labour.” Seriously guys, change the record. You’ve got to wonder just how long things have to continue getting worse until it stops being Labour’s mess and starts being the government’s mess.

What’s been particularly frustrating about all this is Labour’s inability to cut through the dominant narrative with a political message of their own. And what’s distressing me most at this exact point in time is the way they appear to have sat down and gone, “You know what, fuck it. If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Let’s take a look at Ed Balls’ big speech on public spending the other week:

“The next Labour government must start planning now for what will be a very difficult inheritance … The situation we will inherit will require a very different kind of Labour government to those which have gone before. We can expect to inherit plans for further deep cuts to departmental budgets at a time when the deficit will still be very large and the national debt rising.”

In case we haven’t got the message, he then rams it home a second time:

“Because this Government’s austerity economics has failed, we will have to govern in a very different way and in circumstances very different to what we have known for many years. We will inherit a substantial deficit. We will have to govern with much less money around. We will need to show an iron discipline.”

The same message is there in Shadow Financial Secretary Chris Leslie’s response to the IFS briefing on the spending review, which suggests to me it’s a concerted party line:

“Action now would boost people’s incomes, help get the deficit down and mitigate the scale of the cuts needed in the next Parliament. The longer David Cameron and George Osborne plough on regardless, the more difficult the inheritance Labour will face in 2015.”

Of course, Labour’s claims about the economy at least have the advantage of not being complete horse manure. But it all just smacks a bit too much of getting their excuses in early. Basically, their big new message is, “We’re going to have to make cuts because this government has screwed up the economy.” Hmmm, now where have I heard that before?

Just occasionally, it would be nice to see one of these people actually take some responsibility: to say, as Max Weber put it in his famous essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” But I guess Labour have to somehow square the circle of opposing every cut whilst simultaneously saying they would stick to the government’s spending plans if elected. Essentially, if they do win the next election, we’ll be swapping a Tory government making cuts and blaming Labour for a Labour government making cuts and blaming Tories. It doesn’t get much more uninspiring than that.

And they wonder why people have so little faith in politics.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ed Balls vs the Treasury: how the cuts debate became utterly meaningless

It’s been a pretty depressing week all round on the cuts front, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies claiming that the next two elections will continue to be dominated by austerity, and the Labour party admitting that none of the Tory cuts they’ve been screaming about for the past three years would be reversed under a future Labour government (I understand that this is supposed to prove their ‘credibility’, presumably in much the same way that the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at once proves your cleverness).

But there was one detail of the week’s news which really irritated me, and which I think deserves unpicking. When Ed Balls announced that Labour would take winter fuel allowance away from wealthy pensioners, the Treasury dismissed the policy on the grounds that it would barely save anything, telling the press that “one pledge that saves less than half a percent of the welfare budget is utterly meaningless”. 

This strikes me as disingenuous bollocks. The change to winter fuel allowance was projected to save around £100m a year. The government’s benefits cap is projected to save around £275m a year, within much the same order of magnitude. And that’s just DWP’s own, highly dubious estimate: it doesn’t include either the cost of administrating the cap or, more significantly, the cost to local authorities of providing temporary accommodation to families made homeless by the cap. Once these things are factored in, even DCLG reckons that “the policy as it stands will generate a net cost.” 

Oh, and if the Treasury really wants to pick a fight over whose policy saves a bigger fraction of the welfare budget, perhaps it would like to have a chat about this pie chart, which was doing the rounds on social media a few months back and which demonstrates the hollowness of government rhetoric blaming the size of the benefits bill on ‘scroungers’.

In fact, the government has been pretty open that the benefits cap is at least in part a symbolic gesture rather than a policy designed to achieve genuine savings, with Cameron and Osborne repeatedly drilling home the message that it’s just wrong for any family to get more from the state than the average working family earns.  All politicians make gestures designed to convey a political message rather than for their fiscal impact: the real debate should be around the content of that political message.

In the Tories’ case, the message is that people out of work are feckless scroungers responsible for all our economic problems, and that the government is on their case. In Labour’s case, the message is that they might no longer be the anti-cuts party, but at least they’re the party who’ll focus cuts on the wealthiest. And that’s why the analogy between the benefits cap and the cut to winter fuel allowance holds so well. In both cases, the purpose is to set out the party’s stall on the kind of cuts they want to make: cuts that demonise the poorest, or that target the richest.

Of course, pitting these messages directly against each other lays open just how narrow the political debate on austerity has become: disagreement between the mainstream parties is restricted to how we should go about cutting welfare, rather than whether we should cut it in the first place. Still, if the Treasury had responded to the content of Labour's gesture rather than just the headline figure, at least we'd have something that vaguely resembled actual political debate. To criticise them on the basis that their gesture doesn’t save much is, to borrow a phrase, utterly meaningless.