Who needs soap operas when you’ve got Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party? Delete all the nice Christmas scenes, happy weddings and knees-ups in the Queen Vic, the Woolpack and the Rovers Return. Combine all the screaming rows, fist fights and burials of bodies in basements into one barrage of negativity, and you get a fair approximation of the current state of Her Majesty’s Not-Entirely-Comfortable-About-Being-Loyal Opposition.
Tonight’s vote on the Chancellor’s fiscal charter has sparked another bout of fisticuffs among Labour MPs. John McDonnell, it is suggested, either hadn’t read or hadn’t understood the charter when he pledged to support it at Labour’s conference. His sudden u-turn to opposing it has shocked and outraged many of his colleagues, though his justification – that Labour is fundamentally opposed to the principles it contains – is at least more consistent with his track record than his original position.
Herein lies the simple cunning of Osborne’s plan. The charter lays out a simple, popular idea – that the state should live within its means, and when times are good it should run a surplus to protect itself against a future downturn. Had the rule been in place in the early years of this century, then we would have had a more manageable state when the crisis struck, requiring less drastic trimming, more flexibility to cut taxes to soften the blow on workers and employers, and a rainy day fund to call on if needed. We didn’t, and the pain of the crash (and the years after) was greater as a result. That’s an idea the electorate strongly support.
The problem for Labour is that their deficit denial is a feature, not a bug. The leader, the Shadow Chancellor, plenty of their MPs (as evidenced by Corbyn’s slightly needy habit of retweeting them) and all of the new influx of members believe as an article of faith that more borrowing and more debt are desirable. Miliband and Balls tried for years to avoid saying that out loud, because they knew the electoral harm such honesty would do, and they experienced plenty of dissatisfaction in their own ranks at the mere act of fudging the issue.
Despite their regular repetition that the charter is “a trap”, Labour have decided to sling itself straight into the pit full of spikes. Now, with their position on the record, headlines communicating their unwisdom to voters, and dozens of MPs reportedly planning to rebel or abstain rather than commit electoral seppuku, they are still shouting about the trap, even as they plummet into it.
ConservativeHome has long been sceptical of virtue signalling by means of legislation. The climate change targets, the aid spending target and now the fiscal charter are really expressions of values written into law as a political tactic rather than a tool of policy – either a Government believes in these things or it doesn’t, and it fulfils them or it repeals them. But as a tactic alone, this is a masterpiece – Labour’s leadership are doing what they always said they would, display their beliefs proudly. Osborne has given them the full opportunity to do so, and as a result they are both discredited and split.