Labour’s odd messaging: how the party was for reversing Coalition cuts before it was against them

by Stephen Tall on September 27, 2011

Mark Pack has already highlighted the pitfalls of political opponents commentating on other parties’ conferences. And he’s right of course. But it didn’t stop him, so I won’t let it stop me…

I am genuinely puzzled by Labour’s key messages based on the first two days of their conference. Day 1 kicked off with the Big Announcment by Ed Miliband that Labour is now committed to doubling tuition fees (dressed up as only The Observer could as Labour committing to ‘slashing’ fees).

Regardless of what you think about the policy, and I think I’ve made my views clear enough, the headline message generated for the normal news-glancing voter is this: Labour will increase taxes (on the rich and on banks) to pay for increased public spending (on students).

In one sense, this is fair enough. it’s the kind of policy move you might expect of Labour (even if, as in this case, the prime beneficiaries are well-off graduates in a decade’s time).

But then Day 2 arrives, and what’s Labour’s main message now? That the party can be trusted with the economy again because Labour won’t commit to reversing the Coalition’s cuts. Attack them? Yes, naturally. But oppose them? No. Here is the clarion call of the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls:

“No matter how much we dislike particular Tory spending cuts or tax rises, we can’t make promises now to reverse them. I’m clear that I won’t do that and neither will any of my Shadow Cabinet colleagues.”

So let me recap to avoid any confusion… Day 1: Labour proposes to reverse (partially) a Coaltion cut through tax rises. Day 2: Labour vows not to reverse Coalition cuts.

My point here is less about the policies and whether you agree with them. I don’t, but then I’m in a different political party and won’t vote Labour at the next election, so I’m hardly Messrs Miliband’s and Balls’ target audience. What surprises me is that Labour should send out such mixed signals within 24 hours, that their two key messages should cancel each other out.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the conference bubble — because thousands of delegates are hanging on your every word, you imagine the general public is, too. Then you watch a news bulletin and realise how it all sounds to the outside world.