The real George Osborne has stood up
—If you want to really get clarity about this year’s autumn statement, you need to know this: there is actually not one but two George Osbornes in British politics.
The first is cartoon Osborne. This is he of the implacable cuts, the surgeon of the British state and destroyer of the deficit. The second is the actual man. The one who faces us across the House of Commons chamber. A gambler, an opportunist and, above all, a failure.
What happened last month is that the wild intentions of cartoon Osborne were finally seen off by the flesh-and-blood chancellor.
The Office for Budget Responsibility gifted him an extra £27bn in tax revenue which he chose to splurge on a series of humiliating climbdowns rather than bank for the deficit. That he got away with his sleight of hand – and keeps getting away with it – is precisely because he has maintained the fiction of the cartoon Osborne. While he is able to exist simultaneously as both of these characters, it is a challenge to expose him.
Much of the blame for the continuance of the charade must lie with us. Too often we attack the easy fiction rather than the difficult reality. But doing this we sustain the very pretence which gives the chancellor his strength. What Labour must do is to expose the choices that the real Osborne is taking, many of which are grossly unfair and irresponsible.
The debate about tax credits is a good place to start. We won a big victory in parliament and have saved a lot of pain for a lot of people. I am proud of everyone who fought the campaign against the cuts. It was our movement at its best. But we must be clear that the victory will be short-lived. Figures from the Resolution Foundation show that as universal credit is rolled out throughout this parliament millions of working families will be worse off, some by up to £3,000 a year.
The Tory project is to create a labour market with low unemployment, high wages and low in-work benefits. However, this ignores the reality of the labour market we have, with low-pay clustered in sectors such as retail, hospitality and care where wage rises have a real chance of leading to job losses. The trinity of employment, wages and welfare act as a kind of policy whack-a-mole; you try to hit a problem in one area, another immediately springs up. Osborne’s gamble that cuts to in-work welfare will be compensated by wage rises is simply unrealistic. What we must be doing is making the case that we will always need proper in-work benefits to support these sectors and the millions of people who work in them.
It is only if we ignore the temptation to attack the caricature of the chancellor, and focus on the choices he is actually making that we will get a hearing for these arguments and be able to hold him to account for his failures. This is his deficit and his mess. Let’s make sure it is Osborne who pays for it, not the people of Britain.
Alison McGovern MP is chair of Progress
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