The Conservatives are spending big. But not because of Labour setting the agendaby Chaminda Jayanetti / April 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
Jeremy Corbyn thinks he won the argument—and he says he has proof. A Tory government—a Tory government!—running huge deficits, subsidising private salaries, raising benefits, pumping money into the NHS, and scrapping rail franchises? In the minds of Corbyn and his followers, it’s his world and we’re just living in it.
It’s easy to scoff, given Labour’s electoral shellacking at the end of last year. But do they have a point?
Before Corbyn—specifically, before his 2017 election comeback—the Tories were the party of small state austerity. Now they’re gushing money as laissez-faire goes up in smoke. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson had pledged significant investment in schools and the NHS, just as Labour’s 2017 campaign demanded.
The claim that this proves Corbyn won the argument on public spending is tempting. But that doesn’t mean he moved that historic bane of the British left: the Overton window of electorally popular policies.
What the public values
The fact is Britain’s political centre of gravity has long supported funding for schools and hospitals. The 2010 Tory manifesto pledged to increase NHS spending in real terms every year. Funding per pupil edged up in real terms under the coalition. George Osborne focused spending cuts on politically easier targets.
However, from 2015 this began to fall apart under the sheer weight of austerity. Schools funding was cut in real terms. A&E services felt the squeeze. Corbyn capitalised on this. Labour’s successful attacks on NHS and schools cuts in 2017 eventually forced the Tories to pledge more money for these areas.
There’s no guarantee that a more centrist Labour leader could have pulled this off—nor that they would have even tried. Labour didn’t commit to protecting NHS funding at the 2010 election, and many on its centrist flank were keen on service redesign rather than committing cash. And without Corbyn’s across-the-board anti-austerity rhetoric, it’s questionable whether an anti-cuts message limited to health and education, balanced by triangulation on the need for tightened belts elsewhere, would have cut through.
In this sense, Corbyn did ‘win the argument’—but the argument he won concerned existing voter demands to protect health and schools funding, bringing to heel a Tory party whose austerity fetish had taken it outside the Overton window. The evidence that he actually shifted the Overton window…