Cuts to jobs and services are reopening the wounds of the Thatcher era, but that doesn’t mean an automatic boost for Labourby Anne McElvoy / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
I travelled recently to Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency for an edition of Radio 4’s Any Questions. All went courteously until the subject of public spending cuts reared its head. “Will Sheffield ever forgive Nick Clegg?” asked one questioner. The anger in his voice and applause from the audience made clear they weren’t much inclined to forgive the
Cleggeron coalition for what is to come.? After a long summer of relief at the sight of a new government the mood is about to grow much uglier and more divisive.
Such is the anxious context of this party conference season. Two leaders must convince their faithful that rapid deficit reduction is beneficial even as the public mood hardens against it. The third, freshly crowned at the Labour gathering, must seek to find a more credible response than the party has managed in four months of internal preoccupation.
Response to the “rebalancing of the economy” (as the shadow chancellor now calls culling the public sector) reflects ideology, but also geography. A certain kind of small-state Conservative has always considered the public sector wasteful and revels in the prospect of its reduction. Even the new Tory rhetoric veers between two versions of what is ahead. It describes the forthcoming cuts to jobs and local services as a necessary evil: “We must share the pain,” but sometimes the enthusiasm of the inner axeman shines through, as in Cameron’s statement that regions like the northeast are “too heavily reliant” on public sector jobs.
Running a hybrid government in such circumstances is going to get a lot more stressful. Talking to Clegg about the Sheffield J’accuse, he conceded that the “war on deficit” elicits a different response in parts of the country where it reminds people of joblessness and cuts the last time the Conservatives were in power. I felt this tension myself as a child of the northeast in the 1980s. De-industrialisation was to my mind inevitable and in many ways beneficial to a region whose dependency on sunset industries locked it in a spiral of decline. Yet the memories of anxiety and bitterness linger—and so does the political backlash.
Only a couple of years ago new Tories like Michael Gove agonised over how much to “apologise” to the parts of the country hit by the Thatcher cuts, as the party cultivated its more compassionate image. Now they find themselves at it again. Can they achieve…