The comprehensive spending review revealed what a nasty, vicious bunch of class warriors the coalition is. But it also exposed the sheer spinelessness of the Labour Party under Ed Miliband.
George Osborne is a complete failure as chancellor of the exchequer. Slashing public spending hasn’t liberated the British economy and opened a new era of growth, as he promised three years ago.
The Marxist blogger Michael Roberts summed up the grim picture revealed by revised figures from the Office for National Statistics.
“The UK economy remains 3.9 percent smaller in real GDP than it was at its peak,” he wrote. “During the Great Recession, the UK economy, with its heavy weighting towards financial and business services, contracted by 7.2 percent. And real per capita GDP is still 7.6 percent below its pre-crisis peak.
“With UK real GDP per capita at the same level as it was in 2004, nine years later, it truly is a wasted decade.”
Yet as Andrew Rawnsley pointed out in last Sunday’s Observer, it is the Tories who are on the offensive. “If the recent twitches of life in the economy are precursors to sustained growth, the Tories will argue that they are getting the job done, that Britain is turning the corner, even if it has taken a lot longer than they originally promised,” he wrote.
“They will reprise something along the lines of Margaret Thatcher’s successful 1983 election slogan: ‘Britain is on the right track—don’t turn back.’ They will blend that with a version of Barack Obama’s potent attack on the Republicans in the 2012 US election: ‘Don’t give the car keys back to the guys who drove it into the ditch.’”
Behind this strategy is the fact that people blame Labour for the 2008 financial crash that inaugurated the present economic catastrophe. The latest Opinium opinion poll reveals a remarkably contradictory picture. Labour is ten percentage points ahead of the Tories, but 46 percent hold Labour most responsible for the lack of economic growth.
To nurture Labour’s lead, Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls have decided to mimic the coalition.
They say they would respect Osborne’s spending limits if they win the next election and refuse to promise to reverse his cuts.
This “me-too” strategy puts Labour permanently on the back foot. The nastiest feature of the spending review was Osborne’s announcement that the waiting time before unemployed people can receive Jobseeker’s Allowance has been lengthened from three to seven days.
As Polly Toynbee pointed out in the Guardian, “this was pure symbolism”. Osborne was exploiting the poll evidence that many people have accepted the din of propaganda from the tabloids and both front benches about “welfare cheats”.
Predictably but contemptibly, Labour has refused to oppose this mean measure. This left Toynbee agonising, “My inbox is full of upset and angry Labourish people. Why preach Keynes then knuckle under to Hayek, they ask.”
The answer is that government and opposition remain the children, not just of Thatcher, but of Tony Blair. They accept her economic liberalism, which justifies austerity, and his social liberalism on issues such as gay marriage.
Balls may have been Gordon Brown’s closest henchman in the struggle to drive Blair from 10 Downing Street, but he operates according to the New Labour playbook.
This means slavish obedience to the focus groups, the financial markets, and the tabloids.
We shouldn’t allow the hacking scandals to delude us about the power of the media bosses, particularly over issues such as welfare, migration, and Europe.
The latest policy kite to be flown from Miliband’s office is that Labour may join the Tories in supporting a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union—possibly before the next election.
The net effect of Miliband’s and Balls’s me-tooism is that the three main parties will present virtually identical policies at the next election. Almost certainly, that will further reduce their share of the total vote.
I’d like to believe the radical left will benefit, but I’m afraid it’s far more likely to be ugly forces on the populist right.