How Labour can still win

A four-point plan for Labour to build a new coalition of voters

The 2010 election is the first since 1992 when the question "Who will govern?" could be genuinely at stake. The first New Year skirmishes of the long campaign showed the Conservatives surprisingly underprepared, but Labour vulnerable to self-harm.

This Saturday's Fabian New Year conference "Causes to Fight For", with the New Statesman as a media partner, will examine how the left could influence the election-year agenda. Labour is a clear underdog, yet even the current 10-point poll deficit may not translate into a Tory Commons majority. To close the gap, Labour needs to persuade the fragmenting coalitions of voters which brought it three victories that the election result matters.

Can Labour persuade working-class voters that the threat of Tory austerity is sufficent reason to turn out?

And, on the liberal left, will Staggers readers, many of them disillusioned with Labour, feel they have a stake in the outcome? How might Labour seek to re-engage?

Be honest about the record

An honest account of Labour's record on progressive causes would argue that it is substantial but mixed. Labour could not have done a great deal more on international development, but some will never forgive it over Iraq. There was significant progress on pensioner and child poverty, but not in reversing inequality. The minimum wage and more money for schools and the NHS made a difference, but there was an uncritical reliance on finance-led growth.

Ed Miliband has belatedly brought more vigour to a pale green record. Key constitutional reforms -- freedom of information and devolution -- will endure, but a new constitutional settlement was kicked into the long grass. Britain is more socially liberal, with the quiet revolution of civil partnerships, yet arguments about crime, immigration and welfare have often become harsher.

In each of these areas -- excepting civil liberties, the most significant blind spot -- the Conservative leadership has conceded significant territory to Labour's record, rhetorically at least. It is now for Labour to show that its future agenda has substantively more to offer those seeking a fairer, more equal and greener society.

Ensure Labour has a positive message

The focus of Labour's campaign has been on ensuring that the Conservatives face the scrutiny of a would-be government-in-waiting. That the Conservatives are ahead in framing the election year can be seen in how often ministers seem forced to contest Tory narratives -- a debt crisis, the broken society, or the (ludicrous) idea that Labour has declared "class war".

The related charge that Labour has a "core vote" strategy does not stack up: the party was rather more vocal in its condemnation of lack of "fat cat" support for a windfall tax and over "rewards for failure" under Tony Blair in 1997 than it is over banker bonuses now.

The intention is to intimidate Labour into muting its positive argument. This should be framed around the idea that "fairness doesn't happen by chance", and is a question of policy choices not political language, with substantive tests -- in whom we tax and where we spend -- of what a politics of fair chances and fair rewards means as distributional choices get tougher.

Be clearer about spending

But that also depends on Labour opening up the "what not to spend" debate. The Conservative strategy is "safety first and run down the election-year clock". The fledgling centrist Cameronism of 2006-2007 has shrunk to pledging the status quo on the NHS (and development) in exchange for a "doctor's mandate" for austerity and cuts everywhere else. (The opening "Trust Dave" poster is explicit about this offer). Only by being more open about its own future spending plans in the March Budget, however painful, will Labour open up what cutting faster and deeper entails.

Sow the seeds of a new pluralism

Whatever the outcome in 2010, the economic and political crises of the past two years make new thinking necessary on key questions, from a more sustainable "next capitalism" to new ways of doing politics, too.

Both Stuart White on the Staggers and Will Straw on Next Left yesterday made the case for a more pluralist left movement politics.

Restarting these conversations can be difficult. Despite its broad popularity in the mid-1990s, New Labour narrowed into a politics of certainty that repelled those not part of "the project" -- a sharpness reciprocated in critiques from those to its left.

Pluralism needs to be a two-way street. Labour is essential, but probably not sufficient, to future governing projects of the left. Debate is the stuff of politics. One of the first challenges of a new pluralism is whether, where we disagree, we can do so with mutual respect.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He blogs at Next Left

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.