Comment: The Tories can’t keep on blaming Labour forever

Right now, Labour has a credibility problem. But eventually the coalition's excuses are going to wear thin.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

Ed Balls's announcement that Labour is now advocating a policy of significant tax cuts is a risky strategy at best, although not without potential rewards. The trouble is at the moment Labour lacks the credibility to sell such a policy to the British public.

The Conservatives have put all their hopes in the current austerity drive, gambling it will preserve our triple AAA rating with the credit agencies and get us growing again.

So far it's done the former but not the latter. Tax cuts might provide a welcome kick-start to growth, but in order for this to be an election winning policy people have to believe in it. There's a myth that's been circulating for years that people vote entirely based on whatever party offers them the best deal and that promises of tax cuts win elections. This isn't strictly true as both Hague and Howard in 2001 and 2005 talked about tax cuts and both still lost heavily. Their problem was that the public just didn't trust them and while the economy was booming tax cuts didn't seem such a big issue. People also remembered the recession of the early 90's so the Conservatives were suffering from what is sometimes referred to as the 'credibility gap'. The gap between what politicians say, and what the public think will work, or what they can deliver.

Today people are primarily concerned with the economy and many still believe that austerity is the only way forward to avert disaster. Conservative rhetoric about the folly of borrowing more is still a powerful argument on the doorsteps. At the moment they're backing it up with a range of economic experts including several prominent economists, the governor of the Bank of England Melvyn King and the IMF. They're also using the threat of Britain losing its triple AAA rating and what's currently happening in the eurozone and Greece. All of these factors will have a big impact on the public and make Labour's arguments for tax cuts less credible.

For this to change Labour needs several things to happen. Firstly they need to get the experts on-side. They need to find every economist they can who agrees with the idea of using tax cuts to promote growth and push their arguments in the public arena whenever they can. They need to be as proactive as possible in terms of making it look like tax cuts are a credible realistic policy which will have the tangible effect of making the British economy grow again. If growth continues to flat line or the rating agencies suddenly do an about face, this will make tax cuts seem like a reasonable alternative. Of course, both of these things are out of Labour's control. The trouble is, if the economy does begin to recover before the election than the Conservatives will have been proven right and Labour will look less credible than ever.

One thing Labour doesn't have to worry about is that normally if you have a good policy there is the risk that the opposition will steal it. In this case the Conservatives and George Osborne are so wedded to 'Plan A' that they couldn't change course if they wanted to.

They have others problems at the moment. The Conservatives' own claims to financial responsibility look shaky at best. They might argue, not without reason, that Labour helped get us into this mess. But I don't recall them advocating different policies at the time. If you actually go back and consult parliamentary records over the last ten years, what you'll discover is a broad agreement between the two parties over many of Labour's spending plans. It was also the Conservatives who were calling for greater deregulation of the nation's finance industry. While there are a few examples of Conservative politicians urging ministers to rein in spending, they're few and far between. It's gross hypocrisy on their part to claim we'd be in a radically different situation today if they'd been in charge.

The Conservatives' other problem is simply that they can't go on blaming Labour forever. Every government once it takes power has a brief honeymoon period where almost everything that goes wrong can be blamed on the previous regime. I'm sure most people can remember Tony Blair’s constant references to 'years of Tory misrule' to explain why things weren't happening as swiftly as he'd have liked. The Conservatives now have their own chance to play this blame game, but the window of opportunity is beginning to close. Just as the public began to become cynical about Tony Blair's attempts to blame the past government, they're equally starting to lose patience with Conservative claims now – especially if the economic situation deteriorates further. If we're in a similar or worse position in three years time, I don't think Conservative attempts to lay the blame on Gordon Brown will cut much ice.

Therefore both parties face difficult challenges in the next few years. For the Conservatives it's to restore growth. For Labour it's to restore their severely battered credibility. The promise of tax cuts might be the alternative policy the Labour grass-roots have been calling for, but it's also a huge gamble that could make or break the two Eds.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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