What's killing Labour? A thousand failures to oppose the cuts

The party has not so much missed open goals as fled in the opposite direction

Share

George Osborne’s political career should be lying face down, lifeless, bobbing in the Thames. His statement last week should have been rebranded “The Comprehensive Review of the Failure of Austerity”. The Tories’ central pledge at the last election, after all, was that the deficit would be erased, wiped out, vanished over the course of this Parliament: there should have been no alleged need for further cuts after 2015.

But everything those who were smeared as “deficit deniers” predicted would happen back when David Cameron and Nick Clegg began cavorting in the Rose Garden has come to pass. Austerity has acted like a growth-seeking missile, leaving Britain embroiled in a longer economic crisis than the Great Depression itself. The underlying deficit is bigger this year than it was the last; Osbornomics has left the Tories borrowing £245bn more than they projected. Here are the calamitous results of a lethal combination of a shrinking economy, suppressed demand and stagnant tax revenues. Companies are sitting on monumental cash piles worth hundreds of billions which they are not investing. Meanwhile, the average worker faces a pay packet shrinking at the fastest rate in modern British history. No wonder that Osborne’s approval rating languishes somewhere around minus 40.

And yet, and yet. The Chancellor’s default facial expression may be set to smug, but – given the circumstances – his performance in the Commons last week was assured, confident, even cocky. No wonder. Even as austerity has failed on its own terms, the Official Opposition has not so much missed open goals as fled in the opposite direction. The Tories’ message can be summed up in one easily digestible sentence: “We will cut the deficit by reining in public spending, stopping hard-working taxpayers subsidising the indolent and the workshy by cutting welfare, and we will live within our means.” Labour’s current muddled message would take several confusing paragraphs, filled with caveats and clarifications, covered in scribbles and crossings-out. Osborne has cut too far and too fast, they say, but we will stick to his plans. The Tory approach to cutting social security is wrong, though many of their underlying principles are right. Many of their cuts are as cruel as they are unnecessary, but we will not reverse them.

Perversely, this farcically disastrous Chancellor has been allowed to make the political weather, constantly leaving Labour in a defensive posture. His declaration that people thrown out of their work must wait for seven days before getting benefits is a classic example. Working people pay into national insurance and deserve to be supported when their boss sacks them, Labour should have said. The average wait is already more than three weeks as it is. This will only benefit legal loan sharks – who a million families now turn to – and lengthen the queues to food banks, who now cater for half a million people in the seventh-richest country on earth. But Labour did not make these arguments. Ed Balls instead accepted the underlying logic of a longer wait – with caveats, of course.

The Tory strategy is to crucify Labour over social-security spending, aided and abetted by right-wing propagandists posing as journalists who hunt down extreme, unrepresentative examples and pass them off as the tip of a feckless iceberg – say, a woman with 45 kids and a giraffe on benefits, as my colleague Mark Steel puts it. But as a poll published in this newspaper at the start of 2013 showed, thanks to our media, the public are chronically misinformed about social security: about who gets benefits, how much they are worth, and the real level of fraud (around 0.7 per cent). The more they know the reality, the less likely they are to support life-destroying cuts.

Rather than accepting the Tory terms of debate on social security, then, Labour should be launching the mother of all campaigns to educate and inform. Most social-security spending goes quite rightly on elderly people, who have paid in their whole lives. Most working-age benefits go to people in work, like tax credits, which are a subsidy for low pay. Housing benefit – which has jumped by £2bn under this Government – lines the pockets of landlords who can get away with charging rip-off rents, knowing that you and I, the taxpayer, will step in.

To bring down social-security spending in a sustained way, Labour should say, we will address the root causes: taking on low pay with a living wage; controlling rents as well as allowing councils to build; and an industrial strategy to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, not least in renewable energy as Germany has done. Such a message would undercut the prejudices that the Tory offensive depends on.

But instead, Labour’s leaders – pessimistic as they are about the prospects of shifting public attitudes – fail to challenge myths, and even occasionally feed them. It is utterly self-destructive. The more “skivers” or “shirkers” are inflated in people’s minds, the bigger the potential pool of Tory support. After all, if you really want to give “scroungers” a kicking, you will always trust the Conservatives best to do it.

And here is the fatal flaw in the Labour leadership’s strategy. They think they are buying back credibility, rather than shoring up policies that should be seen as sunk, ruinous, shredded. By failing to offer a coherent message, they risk a sense of “at least you know where you are with the Tories” bedding in. But the cost is not only to Labour’s electoral prospects: it will be to the working, disabled and unemployed people whose pockets will continue to be emptied.

A generation of plummeting living standards beckons – unless the Labour leadership’s failure to challenge a hijacking of the financial crisis to roll back the state is countered. Last week, more than 4,000 people attended the People’s Assembly coalition against austerity, and decided on a rolling programme of action. Learning from the success of UK Uncut in forcing tax avoidance on to the political agenda, a day of peaceful civil disobedience will be held on 5 November. The gentleman’s agreement of British politics has to be sabotaged: our futures and those of our children are at risk. That’s not hyperbole. It’s the appalling truth.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Data Administrator

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of this mu...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - £40,000 - £70,000 OTE

£40000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Independent journalist James Moore pictured outside Mile End underground station in east London  

From ‘coloured’ to ‘cripple’ - some words just don't belong in everyday language

James Moore
Marina Litvinenko, the widow of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, leaves the High Court after the opening of the inquiry into his death  

Laying the blame for Litvinenko’s death at Putin’s door is an orthodoxy that needs challenging

Mary Dejevsky
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness