It's been said before, but the Coalition government needs to find a way of being about more than just deficit reduction. For one thing, it's a relentlessly negative message - it's all about the nasty medicine rather what the patient will feel like after it's worked. For another, it fixes the party to an economic platform, which is dangerous; David Willetts has observed that the Tories lost three elections in part because they had become known as just "the economics party". When the economy turned down they were lost, out of touch with the electorate's wider concerns. Finally, Britain has big structural, long-term problems and unless the cuts are tied to a forward-looking programme of reform, these will remain unaddressed (there was interesting piece by James Purnell in the FT that touches on this).
Of course, Britain's politicians aren't alone in facing this challenge; to varying degrees, it's the challenge of all the big developed economies, including America. While Washington fiddles, some of America's governors and mayors are getting to grips with what comes next. One of the most interesting is the new mayor of Chicago, Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. His mantra, as reported by Tom Friedman, is "cut and invest". It means making cuts in areas that, despite being defended interest groups, aren't delivering value to taxpayers, and investing resources in new ways that do. It means not pretending that things can or should go back to the way they were:
In laying out his new budget last week, Emanuel summed up what it means to be a progressive in this age of austerity. “I want to be honest about this budget,” the mayor declared. “Almost every one of these ideas has been discussed and debated before. But politics has stood in the way of their adoption. Maybe in the past, we could afford the political path. But we have come to the point where we can’t afford it any longer. The cost of putting political choices ahead of practical solutions has become too expensive. It is destroying Chicago’s finances and threatening the city’s future. In all of these reforms, we will be guided by principle, pragmatism and progress — not politics. What we simply cannot do is to temporize any longer. We can’t kick the can down the road because we’ve run out of road.”
Actually, Friedman seems to have cheerfully forgotten about another column he wrote, at the end of last year, which suggests that Emanuel has borrowed some his rhetoric from another mayor - the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed. But anyway the point is this: these are politicians who are shaping tough stories of change and renewal out of the mess we're in, which is something Cameron hasn't come close to doing yet.
The same applies to Labour, by the way. Yes, there's an important argument to be had on how to revive the economy in the short term, which is what Miliband and Balls are focusing on. But much more important is that they are seen as having a credible and appealing vision how to run the country after the money has run out.
Link to Friedman on Emanuel.
Link to Friedman on Reed.