Comment: The coalition can no longer blame Labour for failure

By Dr Matthew Ashton

One of the great things you can do in your first year in government is endlessly pass the buck. When things go wrong you can point your finger at the previous administration and say "it was all their fault". However these opportunities slowly ebb away as time passes. For instance, after 2001 you rarely heard Tony Blair make reference to 17 years of Tory misrule, which had almost become a mantra in his first term in office.

Likewise whenever you see anyone from the current government being interviewed, it's only a matter of time before they trot out the excuse that, "we're having to clear up the mess that the previous lot left behind". That would be fine, as far as it goes, but this claim fails in two very important respects.

One is that I've yet to hear anyone from the Conservative benches give a coherent explanation of what they'd have done particularly differently that would have averted the current crisis. If you look at their spending plans, as set out in the 2001 and 2005 manifestos, they're not remarkably different from Labour's (or at least not in any way that would make a significant difference to a debt as large as ours).

Secondly, I think most people accept that one of the chief causes of the credit crunch was insufficient regulation of the global economy and certainly Labour failed very badly in this regard. However again, it's not quite clear what the Conservatives would have done differently. If you read the various shadow chancellors' speeches between 1997 and 2008, one of the chief themes running through them is attacking Labour for not deregulating enough and advocating even more freedom for the so-called "wealth creators of our economy". So if the Conservatives were planning on spending roughly similar amounts to Labour and deregulating the economy further, I'm not entirely sure how they can claim that things would be massively different now if they'd been in office.

The second issue is where the recession came from. In most interviews, coalition ministers and MPs keep referring to "Labour's economic crisis". They seem to present a worldview where the entire credit crunch was an internal event caused by Labour and the external economic situation played no part. As everyone knows, the credit crunch was a global problem that impacted on almost everyone. Even countries with decent financial regulation and low spending were affected. That's globalisation – if the Eurozone fails a huge chunk of Britain's export market goes with it.

The interesting thing now is how the current Euro crisis is being used by the government to explain our lack of growth. "It's not our fault" they cry, "it's external factors beyond our control". Therefore the logic of their blame strategy seems to be: "When Labour were in power everything that went wrong was entirely their fault and external factors can't be used to excuse them. However now we're in power nothing is our fault as it's entirely down to external factors".

So when the government cut spending in the public sector it was meant to be OK as the private sector would step in and create new jobs to fill the gap. When that didn't happen they blamed the euro-crisis. Now call me cynical but there's a whopping great contradiction there. They're quite right to blame what's happening abroad for some of our current woes, however they can't keep pretending that these external issues didn't play a part when Labour were in power.

Obviously politicians being inconsistent in their praise and blame isn't anything new; it's a trend as old as politics itself. For instance Ed Miliband and Labour have made political capital out of bankers bonuses and the News International scandal, happily ignoring the fact that up until recently they were quite content to cosy up to both.

However there's a limit to how long you can keep doing this before the public really start to catch on. So far the coalition has just managed to get away with squaring the circle but it can't go on forever. If the eurozone economies do collapse then the Conservatives will inevitably go into the next election blaming everything from the economy to late bin collections on what's happening on the continent. Doubtlessly Labour will respond by arguing that external factors are less important than the Conservative's own mistakes.

When politicians debate on TV about why the public are so cynical about the democratic process, they might want to consider that we're not stupid. We notice when people say one thing one day and something else the day after. A little intellectual honesty from those that rule us would make a refreshing change.

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

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