Believe it or not, Labour has a good-ish story to tell

Today’s growth figures confirm the recession is over -- for now.

So, it's confirmed. We didn't slip back into negative growth in the first quarter of 2010 and we have -- so far! -- dodged the deadly "double-dip" recession.

From the Guardian:

The Office for National Statistics said its first estimate of GDP for January to March showed growth of 0.2 per cent following 0.4 per cent growth in the final quarter of 2009. Economists had predicted growth on average of 0.4 per cent, although predictions in a Reuters poll had ranged from 0.2 per cent to 0.5 per cent, with some forecasters warning January's harsh weather could have knocked output.

The article, however, goes on to point out:

Economists said the growth figure was likely to be revised higher when the ONS issues two more detailed estimates in May and June once it has collated more data.

That is exactly what happened in March when GPD growth for the last quarter of 2009 was revised up to 0.4 per cent, from an initial estimate of 0.1 per cent. So, it's not all bad news.

In fact, this has been a week of economic clouds for Labour -- but each with a silver lining. The growth figure was not as high as hoped for, but, let's be frank, at least there was growth (and the BBC's Stephanie Flanders highlights the "stonking 0.7 per cent estimate for growth" in manufacturing, which is, she says, "the strongest quarterly performance for that part of the economy in many years").

Unemployment hit a 14-year high but the claimant count continued to fall -- and you'd be twice as likely to be on the dole in the 1980s as you are today. And the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the Budget deficit in 2009-1010, while a record for peacetime at £163bn, was more than £3bn lower than anticipated.

Oh, and while Ken Clarke invoked the spectre of an IMF bailout to fearmonger about the prospects of a hung parliament, the IMF itself released a report that implicitly backed Labour's fiscal strategy. In its influential World Economic Outlook report, the IMF said that the west's economies were too weak for spending cuts, concluding: "In most advanced economies, fiscal and monetary policies should maintain a supportive thrust in 2010 to sustain growth and employment." Bad luck, Ken.

On the non-economic front, the latest statistics from the British Crime Survey and the police show that crime is down by 7 per cent, despite the recession. "The British Crime Survey shows the risk of being a victim of crime is at the lowest level in almost 30 years," said Keith Bristow, head of crime at the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).

Net migration is falling, according to the ONS. Households are better off in 2010 than they were in 1997, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Higher spending has "improved quality" in the NHS, according the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance election report. And so on . . .

Let's not be under any illusions -- or get carried away. This Labour government screwed up a lot (especially abroad), and could have achieved wide-ranging and irrevocable social-democratic and constitutional reforms to the UK had it chosen to do so. Attlee achieved more in six years than Blair and Brown achieved in 13. And so there is no doubt in my mind that, overall, the party squandered its 13 years in office and its large Commons majorities.

But, nonetheless, it has a good-ish story to tell in this particular post-crash, post-expenses election -- despite the broken-Britain/bankrupt-Britain propaganda pushed by the Tories and their supporters in the right-wing press.

So why don't Brown and co tell it? As Steve Richards of the Independent points out:

Labour is seeking a fourth term. As David Miliband has put it, his party is making "a massive ask". Such a quest would be challenging at the best of times. After a recession and the expenses scandal, this is not by any means the best of times. In such circumstances it should be seeking to set the agenda ever hour of every day. Brown and members of the cabinet (what happened to the idea of presenting Labour as an experienced team?) should be at early-morning press conferences, mid-afternoon press conferences, rallies, and giving interviews around the clock.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.