Over conference seasons, delegates should think about how Labour can talk to the public about fiscal policy. Here’s one idea.
Labour’s economic offer suffers from three problems. Our credibility is still low. We have a range of micro policies, but no macro vision beyond anti-austerity (Jim Messina’s memorable ‘vote labour get a microwave’ still rings true). And economic policy is also probably the area where the party is divided. To be coherent to voters we need to bind our ideas under a single narrative.
Liam Byrne’s excellent work on inclusive growth has that in parts, but while it is excellent for policy wonks the language is intangible to the public. The same goes for Marianna Mazzucato’s enabling, entrepreneurial state. The economy frequently comes top of voters concerns in elections, but on the left we struggle to make our vision relevant to the everyday lives.
When we talk about jobs, or economic security it is always tied to specific policies, not the thinking that underpins them. We have spent years arguing against household spending as an analogy for government spending, but that hasn’t worked, embracing it could.
The idea that spending money now saves money in the long run is logical, easy to understand and apparent in everyday decisions. Take this slightly tortured extended metaphor.
Buying 12 toilet rolls works out cheaper than three packs of four, provided you have a place to store it and the money to buy it. Ditto if a pack of 12 toilet rolls is reduced by £2 this week, it makes sense to buy a second or third pack before the prices goes back up. You might even ask someone to lend you a couple of quid to stock up.
Choosing to just buy one pack now is a false economy. While it seems cheaper, ultimately you spend more.
We can apply the same to government. Government has better economies of scale, so can buy in bulk, contracts rolled out across the country lower per unit costs. While finance is cheap from low interest rates (a window that might start closing soon thanks to rising inflation) we can stock up now for later. The state can even help others buy if it saves you money in the long run think tax-free pensions, or the cycle-to-work scheme.
There are countless examples where this rhetoric can be used to attack supposedly responsible Tory policy.
- Cuts to social care are costing more by forcing people to accident and emergency and keeping them in NHS beds.
- Failing to build enough houses has skyrocketed the housing benefit bill.
- Osborne sold off King’s Cross and RBS at unreasonably low prices, when patience could’ve delivered far more to the exchequer.
- Freezing public sector pay, whilst increasing workload, has created a hiring crisis, and left organisations reeling from agency fees.
It can be used for skyrocketing tuition fee interest, for a lack of climate change adaption and mitigation or for a lack of northern transport that is hampering growth. It makes government spending more tangible to people. Cuts now cost more later. You’re only ever kicking the problem down the road.
Phrased this way Labour are the economically responsible party, the one party taking national interest beyond cheap politics.
Labour have been good at talking about the importance of investment generally, but more needs to be done to make it clearer to voters lives. As a narrative it should be used to justify both capital and resource spending which current party policy doesn’t make clear. The investment Corbyn talks about doesn’t raise the pay of public sector workers.
We also shouldn’t eschew some of the professionalism New Labour brought to our messaging. Yes, it should be authentic, but if this rhetoric is going to convince voters it needs to be tried, tested, and then stuck to.
For if Labour are to make the case for the money our public services truly need, conference should start talking about language and not just process.