Labour needs an argument about the state not just the deficit

It's time to start a blunter conversation about tax and spending choices.

Following last week's media storm about the season's new East-end duo, Abbott and Glasman, the real business of politics will get back underway this week. And if the weekend's reports are anything to go by it will see Labour moving to a more muscular position, or at least tone, on deficit reduction.

The new year strategy is set to play down the importance of spending levels to the next phase of centre left politics as it talks up other routes to social justice. "We can't spend our way to the new economy", as Ed Miliband likes to say. The intellectual effort required by Labour to carve out what it sees as a progressive austerity agenda will be every bit as demanding as that required in the 1990s to reclaim fiscal prudence. But in the end the politics of tax and spend won't go away, it never does. It will just return in new form.

The pressure for more fiscal resolve over the longer term is reinforced by a mood among Labour strategists that they have so far failed to turn the coalition's Autumn statement, with its admission that cuts will extend into the next parliament, into a new chapter in the debate on the deficit in which Labour gains credit and then moves beyond a sole reliance on its immediate "too far, too fast" critique.

The risk is that the Labour leadership now moves from talking about the short-term case for stimulus to talking about longer term deficit reduction without yet having a strategic account of what this would mean for the state: what it should do less of, more of, and differently, given the realities of the next decade and beyond.

There needs to be synchronicity between its position on the deficit and the underlying willingness to see through the hard politics of shifting ground on spending and tax. There will be no prizes for sounding more hawkish in the abstract and dovish when it comes to specifics.

Opposition is always a precarious balancing act. Between flashes of resolve on the one hand and the need to retain maximum flexibility to respond to events on the other. Between proving your relevance in the here and now via tactical raids and effective protest, and nurturing the belief that you are ripening as a governing proposition, cultivating ideas and attitudes that will chime with the needs of the next era.

And the little that we can glean about the times that lie ahead is that they are going to be very lean yet laden with new challenges. Once we emerge from the nasty decade we are now living through we will soon be bumping into the towering fiscal cost of an ageing society (read this OBR report to get a sense of the scale).

Any party that wants to win in 2015 with a claim to the future will have no choice other than to speak directly to challenges like these.

All of which reinforces the view that a far bigger and blunter conversation about future choices is needed than the one that Labour has so far embarked upon with the public.

What does a plausible Labour cuts agenda look like for 2015; what are real priorities for the future where Labour should seek to increase investment; and what does a Labour tax agenda for 2015-2020 look like?

There will of course be many views and no easy answers. But some answers are certainly easier and better than others. And though Labour certainly shouldn't be coming up with lots of detailed policies this far ahead of an election, nor should it fail to set out some clear directions of travel.

My own view is that there is a principled and progressive set of arguments that could be made about how the state should change its role in important ways.

It could, for instance, offer less generous support for affluent baby boomers in terms of universal benefits at the same time as it puts in place a proper Dilnot-esque system of social care, overwhelmingly paid for by the ageing generation itself rather than their working age counterparts.

It could invest far more in childcare supporting more women to work, raising family living standards, and spreading opportunity; and far less in supporting the most affluent in our society to build up larger pensions. It could invest more in growth-enhancing capital investment and new housing even if this means a longer era of low or no growth in current expenditure.

I don't suggest these changes alone are up to the scale of the challenge faced -- indeed, I know for sure they're not. Nor do I downplay the scale of the political problem in attempting even these sorts of changes; there will be plenty of heartfelt opposition.

But it is possible to make a start.

Despite sweeping and brutal cuts targeted at low-and-middle income families the coalition has gone out of its way to protect some large areas of less essential spending, meaning the first £10bn of spending re-prioritisation shouldn't be that hard to find (beyond that things get dramatically tougher).

If Labour can't muster the resolve to consider these shifts -- or alternative ones conjured by wiser minds -- I suspect it isn't going to persuade a sceptical public that it is distinctive or has what it takes to govern in the tough decade ahead. The alternative is a slide towards a soggy, cautious politics in which it feels boxed in by a left that cries "betrayal" in response to any proposed cut, and a right that screams "deficit denial" at any new consideration of collective action.

Nor should this all be about re-balancing spending. Labour needs its own distinctive account on tax. Part of this should be leading a genuinely open and far-reaching debate about what a resilient 21st century tax-base should look like, as Nick Pearce says, one better able to withstand global shocks than was the case in 2008.

Equally, it should be identifying new and progressive sources of revenue that can help support fresh needs.

To take one example, it remains something of a mystery why Labour has opted to cede the rhetorical argument about taxing wealth and property to the Lib Dems.

Any new property tax will of course be fiendishly hard to design in a way that raises serious money without being politically toxic (as the person who tried and failed to get the Blair government to reform council tax so it raised more from high-end properties I know how not to do this). All the more reason for Labour to be getting on with this hard work now rather than leaving it to others.

Yet all these longer-term policy dilemmas are overshadowed by a larger political, even emotional, challenge which will require a whole generation of Labour figures to change -- unlearn -- how they practice politics.

During the Blair-Brown era of steadily rising public expenditure, it was possible to thrive by hugging close lots of competing groups and sub-sections of the electorate. The young and the old; parents -- both working and stay-at-home; the head teacher and teaching assistant; the hospital consultant and nursing assistant. They all benefited. There were, of course, noisy battles about reform, but even the bitterest row was soothed by the salve of higher spending.

Today's Labour leadership has, perhaps not surprisingly, been caught between the realisation that this model of politics is over and an instinctive reluctance to embark on the new and far harder course -- one which accepts, sooner or later, the need for clarity about who will be the winners and losers from Labour's fiscal decisions, and the need to build widespread public consent for these choices.

This is a scary transition to make. Outraged representatives of the groups who feel let down will appear on our TV screens. It's tough to handle this in government, harder still when in opposition with few friends.

But until Labour makes this mental shift it will continue to be pushed into a largely defensive posture; defined more by its opponents than by its own positive choices.

That is a position it must break out of long before the curtain falls on 2012.

 

Gavin Kelly is the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change