Cuts. Brown survived the week to fight other battles, and the first he has chosen (other than a spectacular own goal scored in reappointing Shahid Malik without the necessary checks) is the old faithful ‘the Tories will reduce services’ one. This was gifted to him on Wednesday morning after Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley seemed to suggest in a Today interview that, if ring-fencing key areas of spending such as health, a Tory government would cut all other departments’ spending by a whopping 10%. Brown naturally went on the attack in PMQs, and sounded passionate and purposeful in doing so.
The trouble was that Fraser Nelson had already done the maths. The right-wing commentator’s figures quickly became accepted – by the time of Thursday night’s Question Time, Caroline Spelman was reciting like a mantra ‘they’re your figures’ to Peter Hain’s protestations. This is a good position for the Tories to be in – they are slowly but surely developing an at times unlikely economics policy, and Nelson’s findings give them some room for maneuver. Brown will find them so hard to crush with the old ‘Tory cuts’ line largely because everyone – the NHS included – has a sense that investment must fall. When Labour insist, red-faced, that they are committed to real-terms growth, people simply cannot believe them.
Recovery cannot be theatre. Labour cannot afford to be seen to be posturing, but their problem is simple: the most effective argument when faced with inevitable cuts should simply be, ‘who do you trust to make them?’ The electorate should not trust the Tories; but, alas, nor do they trust Labour. The Labour Party have lost the link with their core constituency which established them as advocates for ordinary people; to most of those voters at this point, they seem as elite as the Tories. This makes their best potential argument ring rather hollow. Much discussion of Labour revival revolves around a reconnection with this lost core constituency (this of course joins up with fighting the BNP).
These demands naturally stir objections from the right, but a Populus poll this week suggested that there is no appetite for a lurch in their direction. Labour can and must make the running: if they believe defeat inevitable, there is nothing to lose; equally, it may be the only way to victory – a political party without a base is done for. And are there green economic shoots? Perhaps. Even if those bear fruit, there are huge difficulties ahead – re-engaging the working class with an emasculated union network and a dying activist base won’t be easy, and as (stick with me here) Charles Clarke argues this weekend, social democrats across Europe are in search of a narrative. It will be hard to do this sort of thinking whilst in government; but to rely on anaemic old narratives and yesterday’s spin is no solution to a problem which is not yet without one.