A few weeks ago, a shadow minister urging Labour to avoid ‘shallow and temporary’ populism over spending cuts might have seemed like a sally against the party's Ballsist wing. But given that Ed Balls has since said that ‘Labour will give more details of its tough spending decisions [in 2012]’, then Jim Murphy's intervention in the Guardian today is a little less provacative than that. In truth, the shadow defence secretary's words fit perfectly into Labour's plan to sound more fiscally responsible this year. It is, most likely, party policy dressed up as a clarion call.
What's striking is that Murphy goes beyond this simple rhetoric, becoming the first shadow minister to give some of those ‘details’ that Balls mentioned. He lists £5 billion worth of the government's defence cuts that Labour would sign up to, including £2 billion from the scrapping of Nimrod. And there's more to come: Murphy also reveals that Labour is going to set up its own defence review (bringing together a ‘group of academics and defence experts’) to figure out how to wage war on a budget. Who knows? They might even start admitting that there's only a sliver of difference between the coalition's spending cuts and their own.
Cynicism aside, this is sensible politics from Murphy and Labour. The defence review because — although it's yet another policy review from Labour, rather than actual policy — it's in response to a flawed and controversial effort by the government. The emphasis on spending cuts because it does lend Labour a bit more credibility, or at least more than would be gained from simply denying the cuts. Take Murphy's attack on how the coalition has handled Nimrod. Previously, this might have been nothing more than a call for more ‘investment’. Now it's a call for ‘investment’ alongside savings, and it's more powerful for it:
‘The government cut them up on live television. They treated probably the most expensive technically capable aircraft in our history like a second hand car. They just scrapped it and chopped it into pieces. What you can do is buy in a different kind of capability, possibly from the Americans, and refitting other airframes with some of the technology that would have been inside Nimrod.’