Ed Miliband famously forgot to mention the deficit in his 2014 conference speech, but you would have thought that at least some prospective Labour MPs consider it to be a crucial issue facing Britain. The country is, after all, spending £46bn a year on debt interest payments alone – the equivalent of the Defence, Home Office and Foreign Office budgets combined.
But not so, according to new research presented at a briefing by Ipsos MORI this morning. The pollster interviewed new prospective parliamentary candidates from each of the four main parties – all standing in marginal or safe seats – and asked them to name their political priorities. Of the 29 Labour PPCs surveyed, not a single one brought up the £75bn budget deficit as a key issue facing Britain today. By contrast, more than a third of Conservatives (35 per cent) mentioned it, as did even 9 per cent of SNP candidates.
The Tories have a similar blind spot on the matter of inequality. No Conservative candidate highlighted this as a key concern, compared to 24 per cent of Labour and 45 per cent of SNP candidates who did. This is hardly surprising considering the effort Ed Miliband has put into owning this as a political issue. But Labour claim that George Osborne’s cuts slowed deficit reduction by suppressing growth. So why the lack of concern? Either Labour hopefuls feel that the Coalition has got the deficit under control, or they simply do not see the importance in balancing the books.
Ed Balls has tried to sound serious on cutting the deficit, by pledging to clear the current budget deficit – day-to-day spending – by 2020. But even if the next government meets that target, Britain would still not be paying back its debts. As Lucy Powell admitted two weeks ago, Labour would still be borrowing up to £30bn a year for investment spending come the election in five years’ time.
Labour strategists know that appearing tough on the deficit is key to rebuilding voter confidence on the economy, but it’s clear the issue is not something that will excite the party’s Class of 2015.