How the media loves mixed messages (when they suit their own message)

‘Conservative spending cuts are worse than Thatcher’s, says Alan Johnson’ shouts today’s Observer, reporting the paper’s interview with Labour’s incoming shadow chancellor.

If the election had turned out differently — if Labour had won, rather than suffering one of the worst defeats in its history — the headline could have read a little different… Imagine this headline:

    Alistair Darling: we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher

But wait, we don’t have to imagine that headline: it already exists, and was used by the Observer’s stablemate The Guardian back in March when reporting the then Labour chancellor’s realistic appraisal of the current economic situation:

Alistair Darling admitted tonight that Labour’s planned cuts in public spending will be “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s, as the country’s leading experts on tax and spending warned that Britain faces “two parliaments of pain” to repair the black hole in the state’s finances.

Cuts that would have been ‘worse than Thatcher’s’ under a Labour chancellor six months ago, are now judged to be solely the Coalition’s fault by the current Labour shadow chancellor. That’s what I call a mixed message… so it’s more than a little ironic for the Observer to suggest that Lib Dem cabinet ministers Chris Huhne and Danny Alexander were themselves sending out mixed messages:

Today the coalition appeared to be giving out mixed messages on the economy after the energy secretary, Chris Huhne, said cuts could be scaled back if economic conditions deteriorate. Later, however, the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, told the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference the planned cuts were “unavoidable”.

I’ve looked hard, but I cannot see the contradiction. Of course, the planned cuts are unavoidable — even Labour in opposition accepts that, more or less. The political argument at the moment is over the timing, and the exact allocation of deficit reduction between spending cuts and tax rises. As for the detail, we must await the new Labour leader’s views: certainly we’re none the wiser from the party’s leadership election.

Chris Huhne, for all that he is identified with the social liberal wing of the party, is an economist by background, and something of a deficit hawk within the government, the first Lib Dem cabinet minister to join the ‘Star Chamber’ scrutinising the forthcoming budget cuts.

He would be the first to say the cuts are unavoidable. But he would also point out what is surely no more than obvious: that no government sets its budgets for the whole Parliament without paying attention to the prevailing economic conditions. And I can’t imagine Danny Alexander disagreeing with that.

Whether Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson are in such close harmony we shall see in the coming months.

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  • You’re engaging in a little of this yourself, don’t you think. Alan Johnson is pointing out that the deep and immediate cuts will cause more damage than Mrs Thatcher’s cuts, this is the fundamental difference in policy between the Tories and Darling’s plans for Labour, Darling’s cuts would not have been made so quickly, the idea being that by making the cuts more slowly, the damage wouldn’t be as painful.

    This was actually the Lib Dem line prior to the election too.

    Alan Johnson also points out that Labour won’t oppose all cuts and admits that some cuts need to be made. The big argument is about how quickly the cuts are made.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 10th Oct '10 - 1:55pm

    I think he was talking about being worse in terms of the effect to society than Thatcher’s, including the nature of the cuts, the speed, etc. Not just how deep they are.

    Labour with Darling’s plan would (possibly- his big thing was the idea of flexibility, being able to slow the cuts if necessary) have cut deeper than Thatcher, sure (though not as deep as the Tories, and neither of those as deep as Nick Clegg wanted to) but there’s wiggle room in the idea that they would have been more concerned about the effects on society than Thatcher and would have sought to minimise the resulting damage with far more care than Thatcher or this coalition government.

  • If I were you I’d be more concerned about how The Guardian reported Nick Clegg’s post election statement on cuts:

    “Nick Clegg vows no return to savage cuts of the Thatcher years”
    If the public perception is that the cuts are indeed worse than Thatcher then he’s shafted, and your party with him.

  • An example of a mixed message would be the Lib Dems telling one group of people they would not cut x whilst telling another group of people they might.
    This is not an example of a mixed message, this is an example of a newspaper expressing its partiality.

  • Mike (Labour) After 13 years of Blair/Brown Labour government, this country has higher levels of inequality than it did after 18 years of Thatcher/Major Conservative governments. There are now 700,000 more people in extreme poverty than when Labour took office. These figures remember all came before the credit crunch, deficit and recession, a time of unheralded government wealth. Yep Labour out did Maggie!

  • Jamie – according to Labour, the deficit was the world economy’s fault, yet you are hoping for a double dip recession which “will be the coalition’s fault”?

    Pray tell what sort of scrambled “logic” is that?

    (I do agree though that they really need to URGENTLY stop arguing everything with “the last lot…”! Eric Pickles even managed to make an interview about twitter in politics about “Labour’s deficit”!)

  • Andrew Suffield 10th Oct '10 - 3:38pm

    I’m not sure quite why 6 months in opposition means Labour’s gross mismanagement should now be forgiven.

    And I don’t think the people praying for a “double-dip recession” are acting in the nation’s best interests, and certainly not anybody we want to allow anywhere near economic policy again.

  • @Andrew Suffield people of all hues are warning of a double dip recession, Lib Dem policy prior to the election was far more in line with Labour on the cuts, the cuts were already happening, contrary to popular belief.

    I agree that people praying for a double dip recession are not acting in the nation’s interest, but plenty of economists are warning against vicious cuts, even those who support the tories acknowledge admit it will hit growth.

  • Stephen – I beg to differ.

    The Guardian + Observer are defiantly in Liberal-support mode. They have been since they came out for you pre-election.

    The messages out of the LD’s have been increasingly at-odds for too long.

    First Clegg is against the cuts, now he’s for; first he was behind the Labour timeline, now he’s behind the Tory timeline; First he said the deficit was worse than at first thought, then the OBR said the deficit was better than at first thought; First Clegg said things were unavoidable, then Huhne said they were, Now Alexander said they’re not; First your MPs signed documentation against raising tuition fees, now Cable seems to be saying he is in favour of raising them.

    I fear it isn’t the media that is setting a narrative against you. It is you failing to set a narrative that is causing the issue…

  • Mike(The Labour one) 10th Oct '10 - 5:19pm

    @David: I think you’re starting from a false position- the idea that if a government does nothing inequality will remain static. Of course I would have liked inequality to narrow but it isn’t that easy, and slowing its increase isn’t to be sniffed at even if it isn’t perfect. We have to work within the realms of the politically possible.

    @LDK and Andrew Suffield: From what I can read Jamie didn’t say that he was hoping for a double-dip recession- rather that if these cuts send us into one you can’t very well say it’s come out of the blue and the government couldn’t have realistically foreseen it. There has been far more warning over the possible double-dip than for the banking crisis, and far more scope to act differently.

    Who’s praying for a double-dip? Not me and not Labour- if it comes it will be the poor that suffer. For George Osborne though it’s a win-win situation, if the double-dip hits the deficit will rise further and the welfare state will end up being cut to ribbons.

  • Stuart Mitchell 10th Oct '10 - 5:59pm

    “I’ve looked hard, but I cannot see the contradiction. Of course, the planned cuts are unavoidable — even Labour in opposition accepts that, more or less. The political argument at the moment is over the timing…”

    What with Huhne’s comments, and Osborne’s comments last week stressing that the cuts would be “phased in over four years” to avoid the dreaded double dip, are we not seeing a belated acknowledgement from the government that Labour actually had a point when they talked about delaying cuts until later in the Parliament, rather than destablilising the fragile recovery now?

    And where does this leave all those Lib Dems who were queuing up here just a few months ago to declare that, like Clegg, they had seen the light and favoured cuts *now* rather than cuts later?

  • @ Mike (Labour) but Labour didn’t slow it, they speeded things up. The average real incomes of the poorest tenth declined by 2% in the 10 years to 2007-08 (these figures predate the recession).The rich, on the other hand, have done very well. Of the extra income enjoyed by British households over the Labour years, 40% has accrued to the richest 10%. How did this happened? well in Part because Labour shifted taxation from the rich to the poor – CGT cut from 40% to 18% for example. Being in coalition with the Tories isn’t great; but Liberal Democrats will achieve a lot more genuine progressive policies in a few years, than a failed Labour government managed in over thirteen years in government.

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