Opinion polls aren’t worth bothering with in conference season. It’s only once we’re well into October, with Parliament back and the nights drawing in, that we’ll really know where things stand. But here’s a not especially daring prediction: come Halloween, the polls will show Labour with a sufficient lead to put Ed Miliband into Downing Street.
For those of us who never want to see another Labour Government, that’s a ghastly prospect. Even for Labour supporters – the more perceptive ones – there’s a sense that getting back into office won’t be as much fun as it was in 1997. This is how the Labour activist and blogger Hopi Sen puts it:
“There is a spectre haunting Labour conference.
“Perhaps it’s me. I trundle around, listening to snippets of fringe meetings, having snatched conversations, listening to others. Absorbing speeches, debates, thoughts.
“Labour’s message at the conference is clear: we will improve the life of you and your family more than that other lot. It’s a credible, reasonable, left of centre message. It’s what I want a Labour opposition to say, and a Labour government to do.
“But there’s this spectre, and it lurks behind the costed policy pledges and the wrap around child care. It hides among the million new houses, and the repealed bedroom tax. It sits in the audience behind Ed Balls speech, stands off camera during every Labour up and comers soundbite.”
Sen calls this spectre the “long ugly” (insert joke about your least favourite shadow cabinet member here) and describes it thus:
“What is the long ugly? It is the years – perhaps even decades – of spending restraint and tax rises that lie ahead of the next government.
“…after all the cuts of the current government… after all the cuts of the first year of a Labour government, there will still be the need for £25 billion worth of cuts or tax increases, just to meet the government’s current deficit expectations. That’s with what Paul Johnson [of the IFS] called ‘optimistic’ growth forecasts.
“For everything we hate today, more to come tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”
What Sen recognises is that while politicians can ignore financial reality for a while, they can never escape it – and that, furthermore, this all-important context has changed forever. This applies to the Conservative Party as much as it does to Labour. Sharing the proceeds of growth is no longer an option. Growth may be back, but the proceeds were spent years ago. Now we must settle the bill.
It’s not just the budgetary deficit and the national debt we have to take into account, but also the liabilities that lurk off the balance sheet: unfunded pension liabilities, overdue investments in national infrastructure, the escalating costs of healthcare for an increasingly old and obese population.
Hopi Sen concludes with a call to arms:
“…through the crafted soundbites on the gulf between us and the Tories, the long ugly sits, quietly, waiting for its time.
“When will it make its fangs, claws and snarls known? This year? In the election campaign? In the first, or second of third year of a Labour government?
“I don’t know. But I think the long ugly is coming, and we should prepare ourselves for a fight with a real big bad wolf. If we don’t prepare for that fight now, we won’t be able to defeat it.”
Too late! If we wanted to prepare for the long ugly then we should have got started decades ago. Successive governments had their chance to use the years of growth – and easy credit – to enact the structural reforms and genuine investments that were required. Previous Conservative administrations share some of the blame for not doing so, but it has to be said that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are especially culpable. They had the money and the majorities to make the big decisions that now have to be made in much more difficult circumstances.
As we contemplate the long ugly that lies ahead of us, let’s not forget the long stupid that lies behind us.