Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Moving the centre of political gravity

My friend Emma from off of Scarlet Standard wrote a blogpost the other day entitled: "What is the Cause of Labour’s Cuts Problem?". I'm not going to try and answer that in detail here, but something Emma mentioned in her post regarding how a majority of the public still appear to blame Labour for the cuts got me thinking:

The problem I have, is that we don’t know why they blame us.

Do they blame us because the Tory narrative that we overspent on public services has caught on? It’s a populist narrative that probably does have a lot of traction despite both a lack of serious veracity and the fact that until the crash the Tories were planning to match us for spending.

It is (sort of) true that until the crash the Conservatives were planning to match Labour for spending. I say sort of because they were talking about "sharing the proceeds of growth" which I always took as a tacit signal they would be looking to alter the balance of spending and taxation even if only marginally (at first!).

But what the comments above fail to take into account is how the political centre ground gets moved by a government once in office. Labour in government were very adept at doing this not least in the language they used. They always characterised spending as investment and any opposition from the Conservatives to any individual spending commitments was always characterised as mean spirited and often described with labels such as "same old Tories". Almost irrespective of whether there may have have been good arguments against some of the spending such as it might have been cost ineffective etc.

I am not casting value judgements on any of this by the way, just observing that is what happened.

So Labour managed to move the centre ground of politics onto their investment territory leaving the opposition with little choice in the end (after 3 election defeats) to talk the same language and eventually even promise very similar policies to them.

The Conservatives had managed a similar trick in the mid-90s. After 4 bruising election defeats for Labour, when Tony Blair took over in 1994 he set about trying to neutralise the Tory charge of Labour hiking up taxes (the centre ground was in a different place then) by promising to match Tory economic plans for the first two years of a Labour government.

But over the course of the 13 years following Labour's 1997 victory despite a tentative start they did eventually succeed in increasing public spending overall by quite large amounts in the end. Just because the initial signals they sent in opposition implied they would not do this, I think most people recognised that if you get a Labour government they will try and shift the balance towards more public spending.

I think the same situation happened in reverse in the last few years. Cameron (as is his wont) very closely followed the Blair play book by trying to hitch himself and his party to Labour's spending commitments. Not because he had any deep convictions that it was the right thing to do but for politically expedient reasons. It was only the economic crisis that interrupted this plan and caused him and his government to reduce spending as dramatically as they have done. And to be fair, Labour would have reduced spending quite dramatically too, just not as much. That of course would have been them keeping the centre ground positioned more in their direction.

So to unpack Emma's comments a little bit further, the problem I have is that I do not understand why she does not understand why people still blame Labour. It was Labour who had been in power for over a decade when the crisis hit. They had been in control of where the political centre ground was. Blair (and to be fair Brown) were past masters as it. Cameron was only promising to match Labour spending because that is where that centre of political gravity was.

If you don't believe me, try a little thought experiment. Would public spending have been at the same level as it was in 2007/2008 if Michael Howard had won the 2005 election? Or if William Hague had won the 2001 election?

It is only fair that Labour take their share of the blame for the cuts that are needed now given that it was their government that was presiding when the crisis hit and their levels of spending facilitated by their political acumen.

If Labour are looking for some comfort from the current situation though it is that the electorate tend to have fairly short memories. I confidently predict that as the cuts really start to bite it will be the current government that moves into blame pole position and that will continue to get worse over the next 2 or 3 years.


Emma Burnell said...


You've either totally misread me, or are cherry-picking my post to suit the point you want to make. As we're old friends, I will assume the former. I'm sorry that the post wasn't clear on first reading.

My point was not "why do they blame poor blameless Labour" at all. Anyone interested in Labour regaining power as I am would be foolhardy to ignore the strong numbers in the quoted Ipsos-Mori poll. What the post was all about was asking to look a bit deeper at what exactly it is Labour is blamed for in a split between overspending (the Tory/Liberal analysis) and leaving the economy vulnerable by relating too heavily on the financial sector. In the post I agree that the majority probably mix both with the former the far greater portion.

So my point was not "how can Labour deny blame" but the more interesting questions of how we respond to it and what it really is. To illustrate, close your eyes again, imagine Michael Howard leading us through the global crash and ask yourself what he'd have done differently at which stages and how much worse off we'd be.

On your wider point of the Centre ground, I think your analysis is flawed.

Emma Burnell said...

Sorry - posting from an iPhone...

Labour were not in charge of the political narrative from the time of the election that wasn't. Gordon Vriwn's tradgedy was that he didn't have the skills to lead, only to respond. The Tories were in the ascendancy, and as a result they set the political weather. It's not about who is in government, but who is on the up. The Tories are strong at the moment, though the narrative of incompetence is starting to take hold, as such they are setting the agenda. Labour are getting stronger, and their "too far too fast" message is also starting to take hold. The Lib Dems are not strong at the moment, but as their economic messages are allied with the Tories, on these issues it matters less for them.

The 2013 & 2014 conferences will be the ones to watch. Reaction to those will show who is setting the narrative.

Mark Thompson said...

Hi Emma.

Apologies if I misunderstood the thrust of what you were saying.

"imagine Michael Howard leading us through the global crash" *shudders* That's why we didn't elect him!

I take your point in your second comment about how the steering of where the centre ground is is not always solely controlled by the incumbent government however I would argue they have by far the most influence. They have the bully pulpits of the various offices of state available as well as the entire civil service at their disposal. The opposition can only do so much in response to this. For example watch tomorrow how George Osborne uses his position to slowly nudge things in the direction he would like to see. All that the two Eds can do in response is say things which will have little effect on the direction of economic policy.

There have been occasions when this rule is temporarily turned on its head but it tends to be when it is totally clear that an imminent change of government is about to occur. Tony Blair as leader of the opposition in late 1996 and early 1997 probably had more control of the political agenda than John Major for example. I would argue though that right up until the election in May 2010, Brown still had more control of the agenda than Cameron. It was by no means obvious that Cameron was going to be the next PM. If Labour had got a few thousand more votes in key seats a Lab/Lib coalition was very much on the cards.

Emma Burnell said...

While you're right that the 2010 election was a lot closer than expected, it was actually a contraction of what had been a pretty steady Tory lead.

Emma Burnell said...

Ok I can clearly no longer use the internet. Forgive me it's been a long strange day.

My point was that although the election was close, it was seen as the Tories to lose. So they still had the ascendancy in narrative terms.

Ceetainly as a former lobbyist/current campaigner, the 2 years prior to the election were all about attempts to onfluence Tory policy in the expectation of then being in Government.

Mark Thompson said...

Fair enough. You were closer to the coalface of this stuff than I was. I'd still be surprised though if the Tories had more political agenda setting influence than Labour between 2008 and 2010. It's still the government of the day that largely controls the legislative programme for example.

Influence is just something that I suppose is very difficult to measure.