New language, but for Labour an old dilemma
It's a big day for politicians to craft their evasions about what public services they're going to cut. Conservative leader David Cameron has just made a speech promising to cut £120m from the cost of politics - slashing MPs' pay and allowances, quangos and the like. He admitted it was a pinprick though in relation to the £175bn deficit we expect by the end of financial year 2009-10.
Chacellor Alistair Darling has just delivered a 5,000-word lecture about the future of public services. The word "cutting" is used 11 times - mainly in the context of "cutting costs" but not services.
Mr Darling's speech is a signal that Labour is moving to a new line of defence over public spending cuts. Until the summer its line was that the Tories will cut, Labour will invest through the downturn.
But there has been an argument inside the government that this just was not washing - the Labour party could attack the Conservatives better if they admit there need to be cuts, but paint the Conservatives as enthusiastic cutters and themselves as the human face of cuts.
Now the language has changed - not towards concreteness, but towards "cutting costs". To me that means cutting spending and in political terms, as nice as they try to put it, it is fraught with danger for Labour's leaders.
From Mr Darling's speech it is clear what that human face will be - the smiling mousachioed visage of Clement Attlee was called to mind on numerous occasions. The "humanity" of James Callaghan, himself forced to slash spending after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailed out the British government in 1976, was repeatedly invoked.
Even Nye Bevan ("a Welsh hero" according to Mr Darling who did not evoke Nye by name to the South Wales Chamber of Commerce) got a look in.
Naturally there are going to be a lot of Callaghan namechecks in a Callaghan Lecture, but for some reason Mr Darling did not choose to make any great exploration of what actually happened when Callaghan and Dennis Healey slashed public spending.
History records the Winter of Discontent as the denouement - but there were three years of strife, decay and decline between the two events. Those of us who were around at the time remember that it tore the heart out of the Labour party and its affiliated unions.
To get a flavour of the time have a look at Denis Healey's Budget White Paper speech from 1976:
"I do not pretend that the process of agreeing how the necessary reduction in previously planned expenditure would be achieved was a pleasant or an easy one. It never is. But I would claim that the government have done all that can be done to observe the priorities to which they committed themselves at the last General Election," he said.
There's a lot in the argument similar to the way Labour is talking now. Mr Healey talks a lot about "levelling off" public spending - that is a nominal freeze and a real terms cut because of inflation. He speaks too about a philosophical difference with the Conservatives over the cuts. Labour, Mr Healey assured backbenchers, would do the least damage to public services and act more in line with the party's core principles.
Later, in his autobiography, Mr Healy explained what happened in practice:
"Politically, by far the most difficult part of my ordeal was the continual reduction of public spending; almost all of the spending cuts ran against the Labour Party's principles, and many also ran against our campaign promises."
This is the problem you have if you are Labour chancellor and you have to cut spending. Up to now most of the commentary has tended to focus on what it would do to Britain's triple-A credit rating if Mr Darling fails to make the cuts.
Now, as Labour signals a mixture of cuts, privatisation and "public service reform" it is worth asking what it would do to the party itself. What will Labour's rank and file activists make of its leaders if they ever get around to concretising this into a series of actions in government? As I recall, in the late 1970s, it was close to mincemeat.