The impact of the spending back and forths of the last few days ultimately rests on trust. The side which will hurt the most is the side of which people are most suspicious, as the claims will either stick or they will feel the need to try to rebut them.
Given that, it’s fortunate that George Osborne still polls well ahead of Ed Balls when it comes to who voters trust on the economy. This is a mix of Conservative economics being inherently more sound (live within your means, waste less money etc) and the reputational hangover of Labour’s responsibility for running up a vast structural deficit under Blair and Brown.
However, it isn’t a completely clear-cut picture. Osborne may hold the overall lead when it comes to who has the best head for the job but voters do hold suspicions and concerns about the Conservative heart.
Therefore, the Conservatives would do best to attack the competence and responsibility of Labour – while Labour’s opportunity to land blows lies in trying to stir up fears about whether the Tories really care about things like the NHS.
We’ve just seen the first attempts to do both. The next few months will no doubt see the battle refought repeatedly.
For Labour’s part, Balls tried to pre-empt the attack on the economy (which is an unfortunate weak spot for a Shadow Chancellor to have) last week, in practice revealing quite how vulnerable he is on the topic. Then Labour attempted to bog down the new Tory poster in a debate about figures and road locations, with a little more effect.
Yesterday they wanted to move onto their own preferred ground of talking about the NHS. Andy Burnham’s media appearances struggled with both the facts of his claims (Labour oversaw private sector involvement in the NHS rising from near 0 per cent to 5 per cent between 1997 and 2010, while the Coalition’s supposed ‘wholesale privatisation’ has raised that figure to 6.5 per cent) and his own record (a look at the disturbing witness statements from Mid Staffs reminds us that Labour’s requests to trust them with the NHS should be denied).
Instead of getting their message about the NHS across, they spent most of the day dealing with an analysis of the black holes in their spending plans. For a start, Labour probably shouldn’t have decided to call it a ‘dodgy dossier’ – it isn’t wise to remind everyone of one of your party’s most shameful moments. Aside from that mis-step, they were in a bind – they needed to answer a document they disagreed with in detail, but every attempt to do so involves reminding everyone that their economic competence is under question. Yesterday’s news reports may have featured Labour’s answers, but the headlines were about ‘…claims of a £21 billion black hole in Labour’s figures’. That’s gotta hurt.
Typically of the Chancellor, Osborne’s plan was even more cunning than that. As George Eaton noted yesterday, the analysis cleverly picked out a fundamental dishonesty on the Opposition’s part. A large number of Shadow Ministers have grandstanded by criticising spending cuts in recent years – but Balls cannot allow them to pledge to reverse them. Labour has simply hoped no-one will notice that they are posing as anti-austerity but in practice even they know there is limited cash available. If they wanted to rebut the dossier, they would have to come clean – as Javid put it, “If Labour thinks that we’re wrong in asserting this, then it’s up to them to come out today and they can say ‘We will not reverse those cuts.'”
So Labour were stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. Did they leave their weakspot unguarded and allow the Tories to pummel it, further deterring voters who are already suspicious of their economic competence? Or did they answer it by affirming their commitment to austerity and their unwillingness to reverse a host of Coalition spending cuts, alienating the lefty voters, activists and trade unions to whom they’ve spent the last five years promising the moon on a stick?
With characteristic Miliband decisiveness, they did a bit of both. As a result, I suspect they’ve secured the worst of both worlds. Millions of people will have heard yesterday the concerns about Labour’s spending plans. Today, The Guardian‘s front page reports that Labour may end up squeezing public sector pay further – far from the message the Shadow Chancellor wants to deliver to the deluded left, who make up an essential part of the Miliband coalition.
While we don’t yet know the degree to which hearing the arguments Osborne wants people to hear will change their minds, we do know that as a result of the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ those arguments drowned out the pitch which Labour believes will be compelling. We also know that he has successfully forced Labour to make public commitments which will dissatisfy some of their own voters. On that basis, yesterday was a win for the Conservatives.
Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that in Scotland Labour’s attempts to fight off the SNP provide more and more examples of how untrustworthy Labour are on fiscal matters. Insanely, yesterday they pledged to hire 1,000 nurses more than the SNP regardless of how many the SNP pledge to hire (paid for, they said charmingly, by rinsing the South East of England). At this rate, expect Scotland to become for financial policy what Wales is for NHS policy – a cautionary tale of why you cannot trust Labour.