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 their cuts without relapsing into the role of the nasty party, promising the big society but delivering the bitter society?
For the Liberal Democrats, the dangers are even more urgent. The “unforgiveable” charge against Clegg is that he is selling out the interests of such areas in pursuit of his own ambition. It is an accusation he needs to answer head on. But Clegg also needs to have a word in Downing Street about the tone of the debate on cuts and the regions.
True, there are tax breaks for companies in blighted areas. But if a Cameronian leadership genuinely believes entrepreneurship can flourish in poorer areas, it needs to offer more targeted support and encouragement to those making that leap. I have yet to hear a positive speech from either Cameron or George Osborne on this subject.
For a new Labour leader the unsettled mood might seem promising. Both the Milibands have extended an olive branch to disaffected Lib Dems, promising a change from the bossy centralism of the Blair-Brown years. In urban northern and Midlands seats where cuts are set to bite, the transfer of Lib Dem sympathies to the one party opposing rapid deficit reduction is a likely bet. Labour has already “retaken” Scotland in the May election, having vastly outperformed its national showing north of the border.
The political map of Britain now looks like solidifying into those areas that broadly accept the cuts and those returning to a 1980s sense of resentment to central government.
There’s even a resurgence of “recessionary rock” in cities like Newcastle. The city’s rising stars Smoove & Turrell’s catchy “Beggarman” evokes a return to boarded-up buildings and fed-up, broke locals, and their following is spreading beyond the Geordie disaffected.
A new Labour leader must however beware of getting too high on the outrage. The divided Britain of the late 1980s did not produce victory for the party in 1992. Even under an amended voting system the party that controls great swathes of the south of England is likely to emerge triumphant—or at least as the largest party.
The lesson for whichever Miliband finally steals the show in Manchester is that merely identifying with discord is not the same as being trusted to produce a credible alternative. Without that, all the resentment of a new austerity era won’t topple the coalition’s axemen: however loud the boos as they set to work.