I was wrong.
Well, I was wrong on one account.
I’ve been subsumed by misery and darkness over Labour’s future that my assumptions about the British public have proved, if only partially, unfounded. I have, and nevertheless will continue, to argue that you cannot win an election on altruism alone. But I believed the public were outright belligerent about the welfare state (Indeed, JSA and housing benefit remains deeply unpopular), and that clouded my judgement of how this budget would go down. When I heard about the PIP cuts, I didn’t have much faith that they’d be the downfall of Osborne’s budget. I thought people would consider them unfair, but that fairness would not factor in as much as the crude pursuit of the national interest: a surplus.
I was wrong.
I also argued that the Tories were de-toxified, and the politics they had created encouraged, if not a nastiness, then a hard-headed, sacrificial sentiment that would see the likes of PIP cuts accepted as necessary.
I was wrong.
As it turned out, I massively underestimated the British public. They have turned up their noses in disgust at this budget, largely. Some 70% of the public disagree with the PIP cuts, which would see as many as 600,000 disabled people have their money withdrawn. The revenue, it seems, goes directly to cutting capital gains tax and income tax for the top 7% (A reminder, nevertheless, that the public are majority in favour of this!). The Tories are nasty once more and the public are not happy about it.
BUT, and this is a big but, the public will still vote Tory in 2020 if we decide that this is a turning point. I’ve seen triumphalism, and I’ve seen Liam Young. And boy, do I see people who seem to have short term memories. Like a veteran coming back from war, I’ve also seen a lot of 2010-2015 members going ‘…..eh, but….’. We keep talking about this as ‘omnishambles 2’, which it is, without realising what came after. We became cocky in 2012, and at that point had an 11 point lead. Right now, we have a 1 point lead and we’re throwing a party. That lead is because of Osborne, not us.
Fairness factors in. And my crudeness has been softened after this backlash, which is a relief. And fairness also factors in to the public perception of competence. Osborne lost 22 points off his poll ratings as Chancellor. But that doesn’t erase Labour’s weakness on competence either.
That belligerence won’t translate into enthusiasm for us if we don’t take necessary steps to making sure that link between fairness and competence is locked down. That being, that –as I wrote for Open Labour– we cement in the hearts and minds of voters that good economic management, and the road to a surplus, cannot be achieved without fairness. Tbf, this blog has been talking about that link a lot. Inequality is not logical. And we should reject it not just on a moral basis, but on an economically literate basis too. A surplus, we should argue, cannot be achieved with such an unbalanced approach.
Where I was wrong was that we couldn’t be highly moral about this, and that ‘standing up’ wouldn’t be good enough. Well, that’s true, it’s not enough, but fairness has two components. I underestimated the moral component, Labour underestimates the logical component.
The Tories are beatable. The Tories are deeply unpopular. The Tories are merely tolerated. The Tories are nasty again. Our task got just a tiny bit easier. I was wrong that the Tories could go as far as they wanted without backlash. Thankfully the British public proved me wrong. But Labour has to prove me wrong, too. It has to capitalise and get the balance between ‘Osbornomics is nasty’ and ‘Osbornomics is illiterate’ right. If it doesn’t, this is omnishambles all over, and it will be forgotten in 2020 just as it was in 2015, when the public put security at the top of their priorities.
Two things to learn from this: the public do actually care considerably about fairness on moral grounds -and I was wrong- but this budget won’t mean Labour will win -you are wrong.