Despite recent successes, Labour remains haunted by the perception of being the high-spending party. Though our argument that the coalition’s cuts are ‘too much, too soon’ is gaining credence, overall the electorate remains swayed by the rationale for austerity. The case for austerity is rooted in the incorrect yet powerful metaphor of the household budget: every household has to make ends meet, especially when times are tough so governments must do the same – so much seems common sense. Labour portrayed as the culprit who borrowed irresponsibly fits neatly into this story.
We will not convince the public by rational argument alone. The household budget metaphor is too strong, and if we think patient tutoring on the paradox of thrift will do the trick, we’re being optimistic indeed. Hence the need to establish our economic competence, with all the talk of fiscal realism, fiscal responsibility, even fiscal conservatism. The emerging strategy appears to be one of triangulation between fiscal discipline and social justice – convince the public that we will be responsible with money, maintain satisfactory public services, and ensure that any necessary cuts will be fair. This would mean slowing the cuts, but still keeping a lid on spending.
But this strategy also carries a risk – of conducting the debate on our opponents’ territory. This has been pointed out by linguists like George Lakoff, who recently wrote for Progress Magazine. By merely countering the assertions of our opponents, while using the same language, we risk reinforcing them.
The strategy might indeed work. It might be enough to persuade enough voters that Labour can be trusted with the public purse, and the coalition’s ineptitude may help us along. But then the whole discourse on economic policy will be set in this frame. The point is not that spending doesn’t matter. Labour will need to make some difficult choices – choices that will require carefully targeted spending.
But we shouldn’t allow the debate on the economy to be defined solely in terms of short-term deficit reduction. Social justice and economic efficiency are not in contradiction. Our challenge is to reset the terms of the debate, so we don’t have to watch our backs at every turn, or to apologise for our record.
Shadow minister Chris Leslie MP has used a concept that might lead us to an alternative frame. He has been talking of good ‘stewardship of the nation’s resources.’ Applying this concept, common in discussions on corporate governance, to the economy is spot on. The metaphor of stewardship could enable us to broaden the debate on how the nation’s resources are managed, beyond any one-dimensional indicator of performance. For instance borrowing for projects that will bring long-term benefits far exceeding the cost of borrowing is wise stewardship. Failing to do so is foolish mismanagement. This applies equally to social policy. On these pages Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group has exposed the sheer folly of spending cuts that raise child poverty. No contradiction here between social justice and fiscal rectitude. Well-targeted spending in the short term will deliver clear financial benefits in the long term; showing how a focus exclusively on short-term borrowing is the wrong frame for thinking about economic competence. And surely the key resource of any nation is the potential of its people. Consider the tremendous waste in human, social and economic terms of a lost generation of young people. In this context scrapping the Future Jobs Fund was poor stewardship indeed.
Tanweer Ali is a member of Progress. He tweets @Tanweer_Ali
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