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Cuts far deeper than they would have dared make with an outright majority

Posted on 21 October 2010 | 3:10pm

There is something wonderful, almost French, about Brighton seafront on a cold sunny day like today. I was so taken with the light and the fresh air that I enjoyed a little stroll before heading to one of the big hotels on the front to speak at a conference of public services communications professionals. This is one majorly worried group, what with public services under attack, and communications an easy target.

As I walked I thought of major moments in my life that had involved that front. The big party conferences, and some of the most important speeches in TB’s career. The time Peter M threw a punch (of sorts) in a dispute about whether TB should wear a tie or not. At the other end of the sublime-ridiculous scale, the September 11 attacks, which happened as TB was about to speak to the TUC, where he got his single standing ovation from them, when he announced he wasn’t going to make the speech because he had to go back to London.

Then there was the Brighton bomb aimed at wiping out Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet, one of the biggest stories I ever covered, which led to one of the biggest benders of my life, and a bout of alcohol poisoning after two weeks of non-stop work cum old style Fleet St end-of-every-day drinking.

So all that reminiscing before coming back to the sharp cold reality of today, and a new mood set by George Osborne. Some are already falling victim to the cuts, like the former colleague who commented here yesterday that he had worked with me on a review of government communications way back when, and yesterday got his redundancy papers. There is going to be a lot of it about, and despite the weather and the beauty of the light and the sea, there was a lot of apprehension around at the conference.

I took a call on the way from a council chief executive who said lots of councils had been cutting to the bone in advance of the announcement, so the idea that there was lots of spare fat still to chop out was one he found difficult to square with reality, let alone the government’s stated aim of continuing to deliver good services.

I tried my best not to get too party political and to give a dispassionate analysis of what was going on. And as I did so, I pointed out that George Osborne was obeying a fair few of the golden rules of strategic communications. Having a clear objective (slashing the deficit) backed up by a clear strategy (massive public sector cuts, made whilst claiming there is no alternative because the last lot messed it up — neither supporting statement wholly true, but another rule of strategic comms is that once you get a line you never tire of saying it, especially if it is difficult for your opponents).

Looking a bit more into the small print of the CSR, the sheer scale of broken promises became more apparent. And here’s where the Tories were blessed with good luck in not winning the election outright. It didn’t feel like that for them at the time, but both they and their Lib Dem partners are able to get away with far more broken promises – for now – by overdoing the stuff about Labour, making utterly false claims about ‘the books’ being worse than they expected, and then telling their supporters they accept responsibility for the good bits of any joint package, and blame the other side of the coalition for the things they are a bit more iffy about. Sob sob for Nick Clegg as he tells Lib Dems on a conference call how gutted he was about reneging on his tuition fees pledge. 

Let’s just rewind to the election. As I said this morning, on any rational analysis of electoral factors, Cameron should have walked it. An economic crisis. Expenses – and although all parties were hit, clearly it hit the governing party hardest. Iraq back in the political area because of the inquiry. Afghanistan in a bad place politically not least because of the Tories constantly banging on about our troops being badly equipped (something of a bad joke in the light of the defence review). Plus GB being pretty battered and ‘time for a change’ being a powerful political impulse.

So why didn’t DC win? Answer: because the electorate were unsure about his strategic purpose for the country. And in their own unique way, they gave him one – see if you can make a coalition government work. They didn’t want us back. But they didn’t want the Tories back unchanged from what they remembered and what they had rejected so comprehensively three times over.

So they threw a curveball, and Cameron and Nick Clegg decided to catch it. Bold stuff. But yesterday was if anything more significant than that original coalition deal, many parts of which will be lying in tatters come the next election.

What it all means is that we have ended up with public sector cuts far deeper than anything Maggie would have gone for, and despite the rhetoric, far more targeted at the poor than those with the broad shoulders George keeps talking about.
There were a fair few local authority people there today. And they really have been chucked a curveball too. They are being told ‘you can have far more freedom to decide what to spend on. But a lot less to spend.’ So that when the local services get axed, George is hoping it is the local politicians who cop it. Meanwhile he envisages the private sector rushing in to fill the huge gaps he is creating. It is certainly bold. But the chances of it working are unproven, and possibly seriously crazy.

Meanwhile it is surely an irony that if the public had given the Tories a majority, it is doubtful they would have dared propose so many of the cuts announced yesterday. Cameron and Osborne really do owe bigtime to Clegg and Danny Alexander.
That’s the other thing you need in any strategic comms plan – third party endoresments from people who will support you whatever you say or do.

  • Anonymous

    What’s really disappointing at the moment is how bad Labour are being at getting a coherent message together. The coalition are following brilliantly (or nauseatingly, for me) your example in formulating a simple message and banging on about it at every opportunity so it becomes the prevailing narrative – ‘the huge mess left by the Labour government’; ‘one party created it, two others are clearing it up’ etc.

    Why haven’t the labour front bench got a coherent answer? Some commentators know and are saying the truth – that debt wasn’t out of kilter until 2008 when the banks / economy crashed, and also that Labour did have a strategy – Darling’s sensible one – for getting out of the hole, in a much more measured and less risky timescale than Osborne and his gang are inflicting (and there must be a lot of decent Tory and Lib Dem voters out there who are revolted at the spectacle of glee they saw yesterday).

    Johnson is perfectly capable of delivering a counter-message if if he can’t create one himself – he and Ed Mili need to get their act together and instil the same discipline in the Labour team as the coalition have managed.

    Otherwise we’re all doomed. . .and it may be too late anyway now, if you look at the polls – the public are buying the Labour catastrophe line.

    Can’t you do anything to sort it out, Alastair? Please?

  • The cuts are of course much worse than they needed to be, but the person who should shoulder much of the blame has to be Gordon Brown. Not for mismanaging the economy or anything like that, but for not letting someone else take over as labour leader 18 months or so before the election, when it became obvious that he was never going to win. If that had happened, and, say, David Miliband had taken us into the last election, the chances are that Labout would probably have kept a good n umber of seats it lost, even 25 or so would have made a huge difference, and made it harder for Cameron to claim any kind of mandate.

    Gordon Brown said he was fighting for jobs and for middle- and low-income earners. The best thing he could have done for them would have been to let someone more electable take over, and, who knows, Miliband might have been able to meep Labour the largest party. Labour must take its share of the blame, not in the way Cameron would like to make out, but because it allowed the Tories to win and implement these far-right Chicago-School policies.

  • Ronnie

    Couldn’t agree more. Labour have totally disappeared just when they’re needed most. It’s pathetic and incomprehensible – this is the first big challenge for EM and he’s just not taking it up. Opposition isn’t a choice – it’s a duty. If he can’t do it, maybe it’s not too late to get the brother back.

  • toni

    You’re right Zac, the lack of a simple and re-memberable sentence completion type message has concerned me since the GE election and the interminable leader selection process.
    I wonder if some focus on the old but good, Theresa May ‘nasty party’ attribute might have traction again currently ie welfare cutbacks, or that Tories supported GB until 08, ie hypocrisy.
    I’m sure there’s plenty to go at, and I’m not politically smart enough to frame hits, but perhaps our new leader and party was just waiting to see what the coalition came up with before launching counter attacks – hopefully! Or we could have a competition for the best attack lines…
    So I endorse your plea to Alastair to help us out.

  • Richard

    To judge by the performance of Dreadful Moribund yesterday at PMQs, Cameron and friends have nothing to fear in the the near future….. and the postie who followed Osborne is a lightweight, appointed by Moribund!
    Your Union bosses certainly threw the LibCon Alliance a free run to the next election by their votes.
    Spin on Al!

  • Fozzie22

    Yesterday was a national disgrace an attack unheard of on the poor and the sick.

    I agree with what AC has written the sight of cheering tories and libdems as Osbourne sat down was obscene yesterday was no place for that,i hope the british public remember those scenes at the next election.

    Ed Miliband,i’m sorry to say looks utterly out of his depth as leader Johnson is not a shadow chancellor,again while he got a couple of jibes in it wasnt a place for it it needed someone like Yvette Cooper or even Ed Balls to utterly rip these plans to shreds yet again all i hear from labour is well yes we agree on that,bugger that,they are the opposition start to oppose things!!! stop making this mockery of a government’s job easy.

    Now to the Libdems,well i will say this at least Clegg had the good sense to keep the nods down to a minimum and as far as i recall there where no loud cheers,ok a slap on the back yes but nothing like what was going on but he looked tired and old not the fresh faced leader of a few months ago for him,i do hope he’s got a job lined up for himself(i suspect he has) as i do feel his and Mr Alexander’s seats are rather vulnerable come next election.

    But talking of the Libdems,where is Hughes,Kennedy etc? you know the “left leaning” ones of this shambles of a party?are they that ashamed of this that they’re hiding away somewhere? no i suspect not they like the rest of this terrible,horrid little unprincipled party are enjoying the trapping of being of a party who can say they’re part of a government,enjoy it boys you’ll never ever be elected again,AV? forget that i think..even if full PR was on the table i wouldn’t, vote for it on the principal its what the libdems want folly i know but yesterday showed me how far this nasty little party have become

  • s chapman

    I think you are wrong in your last paragraph – there is every indication from speeches made before and during the election,from the Tories,that the State was wasting tax payers money and that the welfare system was utterly broken.I’m convinced that the Tories , particularly George Osborne, would have persevered with a deficit cutting programme every bit as thorough as we saw yesterday.
    You also misread public opinion – for every 1 person you find that disagrees with the speed and depth of the cuts you find at least 1 who agrees the debt has got to be addressed now and that benefits are out of control.
    You are right the word of the moment is BOLD and thanks for that – politicians in Govt now are being bold something you never did in Govt with TB.You were lead by public opinion, you never sought to arouse,shape and direct it…..
    As I have said on here before Ed Miliband will never become P.M

  • Sarah-dodds

    How many sleeps until the the last possible date before the next election?
    Because the country I see then is not the one that I love now. Labour were never perfect – I’d have joined years ago if it had not been for SATS and League Tables and other stuff. How bloody stupid and juvenile those complaints look now!! Talk about nit picking!!
    We MUST get the message across of what Labour achieved. Many of my younger teaching colleagues simply don’t know the damage done to public services under the Tories before. When I tell them about people dying on the waiting lists and schools with no paper and pens they just don’t seem to get it because those stories are not real to them. They have never worked in anything less.
    I spoke to my next door neighbour a while ago after the election – she’s in her early thirties, no kids. I was horrified that to her New Labour were the evil establishment and the Coalition represented a change – a fresh outlook. I tried my best to explain, but she was looking at me like I was nuts.
    Will things have to get that bad again before people recognise truth? I am personally convinced – now more than ever – that people will die because of these cuts.
    I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say apart from venting!!! But so much great work at building a fairer, happier Britain is being trashed so quickly. I don’t know if I want to stay and watch. Why the hell can’t we be France?

  • Caroline

    I have felt physically sick since yesterday and at times found it extremely hard to watch the BBC parliament coverage of the spending review. Today, the BBC has wheeled out commentator after commentator from business, (EEF, chamber of commerce etc) right wing think tanks (Adam Smith institute, Policy exchange), the world of banking and several Conservative council leaders, all of whom regurgitated word for word exactly the same script (interest payments, debt left by Labour, fair, no choice blah blah). Essentially what they are saying is that because we are in a financial crisis that it is absoutely fine to withdraw all kinds of support for children, families, the sick, the disabled and the elderly.
    And despite being one of the few who will be unaffected by either higher taxes or loss of benefits (my youngest will be out of education by the time the child benefit changes arrive in 2 years*) I do not accept that this is acceptable.
    *On the point of child benefit, the cynic in me says that this will not happen. I believe it is pure political posturing to provide cover for the intent to hammer the poorer, whether or out of work or in work payments. In 2 years time, I think they are betting that things may have improved and the idea will be quietly shelved. As it stands – the policy is unworkable. It would need to link together the NI number of the person claiming the CB with that of the other, higher rate taxpaying partner. Those who are self employed will not always know whether they will hit the higher tax rate – should they go without CB all year in case they do? Also, other benefits are either universal, means tested on household income, contribution based or payable to those who meet the criteria, such as disability living allowance. CB would not fall into any such group – as it would not be based on household income, it would not be contribution based.
    The problem really is that no political party alone can bring changeespecially when the message is being drowned out by the media’s slavish echoing of the Tory spin. It needs ordinary people to speak out. That may be by taking part in organised protest, joining groups such as the (alternative) Coalition of Resistance, writing to your MP, signing petitions and writing to newspapers. For me the strongest message today came from the female MS sufferer in a wheelchair at the Cameron/Clegg Q&A session, who told them straight that they were picking on the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Hard to argue with a woman in a wheelchair, who is about to have the care allowance she received from the Government – which is between £40 and £50 a week – would be effectively halved by having to pay for her own home care by the local Tory council. And yet Clegg tried to do just that by claiming that extra money had been given toward social care – another claim which is being disputed by the IFS.

  • Anonymous

    ZacMurdoch is being a little impatient with Labour. Understandable, but this is a long game. Already the chant that the Tories are clearing up Labour’s mess is wearing thin. Alan Johnson coined a very good phrase yesterday – ‘deficit deceivers’.

    What coherent message would you like to see Labour deliver? You don’t say. This is a tricky one for Labour, because Alistair Darling’s proposals, which they are broadly sticking with, are not altogether helpful. I personally would favour further economic stimulus, but the media would shout that down, illiterates that they are. As for Ronnie speaking wistfully about David Miliband – we are where we are, and Ed is a fighter. So try something a bit more constructive.

  • arresta

    I have to disagree with some of the posters here, there is no point in talking when no-one is listening. There is still a large majority who, despite the evidence to the contrary, believe that the deficit was caused by Labour and are unlikely to have their minds changed by anything other than their own circumstances. Once the shit really does start flying and the dole queues lengthen with both public and private sector workers, output drops, cars sit on forecourts unsold and house prices stagnate or decrease, only then can Labour offer an alternative which people will listen to and start to rationalise about the real cause of their woes. Unfortunately by then the damage will be largely done but hopefully Labour will take the opportunity to offer a real alternative this time and maybe make the changes that they should have made when they last had the chance.

  • I concur with Ronnie and Zac. The government are getting away unchallenged with announcing anything they like provided that it’s prefaced with ‘Don’t want to do this’ and followed by ‘it’s a coalition decision’.

    In your diaries AC you often write about how easily Tories get their ‘lines’ of communication up and get their message out across their informal media network. To me this is a classic example of it.

    Labour needs a sharper message and pretty quickly.

  • s chapman

    You don’t wear orange or yellow ties then mate ? lol

  • Roadriverrail

    Very interesting, arresta, but Labour HAS to try to counter the blatant lies coming from the Coalition and their press supporters. Apart from anything else, it needs to practice its communication skills. The next election is being won and lost right now, for me – over who the electorate blames for the fiscal hole. RRR

  • Roadriverrail

    So the Iraq War wasn’t bold, then. Gotcha.