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Wednesday, January 25, 2012 

Something must break - again.

Politics at the moment seems to be even more a mess of contradictions than it ordinarily is. Just take a look at the current opinion polls - by rights, the Conservatives ought to be in deep trouble. Today's GDP figures for the last quarter all but vindicate the position of Ed Balls and Labour, that cutting too far and too fast would choke off the recovery. With the cuts not really beginning in earnest until April last year, this is the first real evidence of the effects of George Osborne's austerity, and the results have been all too predictable. Left with only the Eurozone crisis to blame, the responsibility for an 0.2% economic contraction can be levelled squarely at the government.

To be fair to those who don't really deserve the benefit of the doubt, some of the coalition's policies aimed at boosting growth haven't yet got off the ground, such as enterprise zones announced in the budget and the credit easing programme trailed prior to the autumn statement. They could yet have an effect. This though is to overlook two of Osborne's other policies which have failed to work: first, that there would be a "march of the makers", the clunky soundbite to end all clunky soundbites, and second that the private sector would be able to absorb those losing their jobs in the public sector. One of the main reasons for the negative figure is that manufacturing and construction output both fell sharply in the last quarter, while the latest unemployment figures (PDF) showed a staggering loss of 67,000 jobs in the public sector, with only 5,000 created in the private.

Why is it then that Labour can't even stay neck and neck in the polls with the Tories? The reliable ICM poll for the Graun gave the Conservatives a 3% lead over Labour, while YouGov for the Sunday Times found they had a 5% lead. Even more worrying is that Ed Miliband, perhaps not surprisingly considering the unbelievably hostile coverage he continues to receive in the Tory press, is continuing to plumb the depths in the personal ratings. Quite why this sudden lead has appeared in some of the polls is frankly a mystery: the last couple of weeks of carnage in the House of Lords over the welfare reform bill can't have irked the public that much, the Daily Mail's attempt to go nuclear over the injustice of bishops suggesting that child benefit shouldn't be included in the cap aside. It's not just the economy, either: the NHS reform bill is even more unpopular than both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband put together, and Cameron's speech on responsible capitalism last week was piss weak.

It could just be that these are blip polls that will soon be corrected, and ICM's 3% is only just outside the margin of error. According to UK Polling Report, under the provisional new constituency boundaries Labour needs a lead of at least 4.3% over the Tories to win a majority. This is hardly an unattainable figure, but at the moment it certainly looks that way, especially down to the party's catastrophic economic credibility figures. Attempting to change this was behind the shift in recognising that the party could not promise to reverse any of the cuts made should it win the next election. Ed Balls will continue to call for a slowdown in the austerity package, as they would implement should a snap election be called tomorrow and they win it. The obvious problem with this policy is not just that it's a little too subtle, it's also just as slippery as Labour have been ever since the election. It essentially means that nothing in practice will change.

No surprise then is that for now at least it's been welcomed with the same enthusiasm as a fake Gary Glitter account was on Twitter. Beyond the trade union anger at Labour going along with the coalition's freeze on public sector pay, the real reason why it was so short-sighted is that even Standard and Poor's and the IMF, two of the great prophets of neo-liberalism, have now both made clear that austerity on its own is only going to make deficits worse. Through making such a fetish of removing the structural deficit by 2015, something which Osborne admitted back in November was now unachievable, alongside hubristic claims like the country was a safe haven, the coalition invited the kicking it ought to now be receiving. Labour, rather than ramming their point home and pointing out how they said this would happen, is now left in the position where most of the public thinks they wouldn't be doing anything differently.

Ever the optimist (on this only), I still think there's plenty of time for the public mood to change, especially if the next quarter also delivers negative growth. While avoiding the usual complaints of talking down the economy, Miliband and Balls have to keep repeating and ridiculing the promises that Osborne and Cameron made. The current contradictions simply cannot last; something must break. It has to be the coalition.

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