Notes on IDS, Osborne and Labour

He’s gone. Jumped. Before he was pushed? Perhaps. Were there more reasons than he is letting on? Certainly. Of course this is partly about Europe; from now until June, everything that happens in the Conservative Party is. Still, resignations don’t just happen out of the blue, even if that may be the way we see them. Whatever reason he had for resigning, the language IDS employed in doing so was quite remarkable, and he made official a few open secrets along the way.

He could have said something like “I want to take a more active role in Leave and feel that the British people deserve a fully-focused cabinet minister” or some similar guff, but he didn’t. Instead, he labelled austerity as a political choice and went fully after the Cameron style of governance. Many people have been saying this for years, and one would be naive to think him 100% sincere, but this choice of language doesn’t come from a vacuum – it echoes what a lot of left-wing economists, and others, have been saying for a while. What effect this will have long-term it’s hard to say, but it certainly legitimises the position, I think. It’s hard to use the usual trick of painting someone as a “raving lefty” if a former Conservative Party leader and former minister of that government has been saying the same thing.

He confirmed George Osborne’s policy of going directly after non-Tory voters. This policy was never that much of a secret. When pensioners, the NHS and the education system were protected, but the working-age jobless and working poor were not protected, it was pretty clear what was happening. Spending that’s used by Tory voters is protected, spending for non-Tory voters is not. It has been the same story with council funding – protection for Tory councils, none for Labour councils. This, again, sounds a lot more convincing coming from an ex-colleague than it does coming from Labour party sources.

It clarifies also the suspicision that the government has been run on a largely ad-hoc basis, focused on the news cycle over the long-term effects of policy – taking a leaf out of the New Labour book. A continuation of the politics of cynicism that we became all too accustomed to – the politics of cynicism that virtually everyone in the country despises. Jeremy Corbyn’s election to Labour leader was in large part a refutation of this style of politics, though sadly most of his party seem not to have picked up on this. Once again, this type of criticism sounds a little “well you would say that” if a Labour source says it, but from an insider it’s much more damning.

Leftists should not be tricked into thinking that just because IDS was the frontman for some ghastly cuts, he was fully in favour of all of them. At the end of the New Labour era, there was a significant group of benefit recipients for whom work would not pay – a moderate amount of work on a low wage would disqualify people from a large number of benefits, leaving them worse off overall. Having the structure of the benefits system actually discourage some people from work clearly suits nobody.

The move to universal credit could have smoothed this out, with a seamless transition from out-of-work to in-work benefits that meant nobody was made worse off by work. The problem for IDS has been that Osborne saw benefits as a pool of money into which he could dip every time the numbers didn’t add up. His budgets were tightly controlled surprises so that he could get the most political coverage from them with the least scrutiny – a bit like an Apple product launch. What could have been a productive reworking was transformed into a cack-handed attempt to cut benefits without anyone noticing.

Just because IDS is a Conservative doesn’t mean he can’t be appalled at a style of governance that is so nakedly partisan and news-cycle focused. Yes, IDS has selfish reasons for resigning. He probably wouldn’t have lasted long after the referendum. He might just be being petty. One could ask why was the straw that broke the camel’s back – if he cared about welfare recipients, why not have done this before? He may have felt that he could do more from within than outside. He may have relied on the Lib Dems to shield him from the Osborne axe. Only he truly knows.

Still, his resignation is big news. For the first time since the financial crisis, it looks like Labour have had some success framing the economic narrative. That IDS chose to mirror it so closely is significant – he would not have chosen those words if he didn’t think they were either good for him or bad for Osborne. A majority of twelve now looks like basically nothing, and in other news, Labour lead a poll for the first time during Corbyn’s leadership.

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