It’s the “squeeze”, not the “middle”, that matters

Labour needs to ignore definitions of the “middle” and focus on policies that address the “squeezed

The next election is going to be the "living standards" election. This week's forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the Tory election strategy will be to offer the public the chance to have back £6bn of its money in tax cuts. The figure echoes the £6bn in efficiency savings that the Tories made the centrepiece of their last election campaign, allowing them to pledge an end to "Labour's jobs tax". In the end, they cancelled the National Insurance rise for employers only, not employees, but they look likely to offer tax cuts at the next election, too.

Labour has to avoid fighting the last election again. In a speech to Demos this week, the party's last election co-ordinator expressed regret that the run-up to Labour's campaign was wasted on refusing to acknowledge the need for cuts and on using the "Mr 10 Per Cent" dividing line that worked in 2001 and 2005, but lacked credibility by the last election.

Douglas Alexander warned of a "jobless recovery" but was careful not to be seen to wish for one. The mistake the Tories made at the start of Labour's first term was to predict "a downturn made in Downing Street" that never came. So it is vital that Labour avoids rubbing its hands at every bit of bad news and being seen to be willing a double-dip recession.

In the past week, the right has sought to attack Ed Miliband's focus on "the squeezed middle" by attacking the definition of "middle". Labour needs to ignore this and focus on policies to address the "squeeze". There are many definitions of "the middle", from John Healey's essay for Demos back in the summer to Liam Byrne's article in the latest issue of Progress magazine. It really doesn't matter if voters are earning up to £50,000 and it really doesn't matter if voters earning up to £30,000 are suffering a "triple crunch" or a double whammy. It's the squeeze that matters, not the middle.

Across the country, there is a "squeezed generation": those people paying for the social care of their elderly relatives while also trying to help their children through university or on to the property ladder. This generation is represented at the "bottom", at the "top" and in the "middle".

Young families will be squeezed by cuts to childcare tax credits. Commuters will be squeezed by rising rail fares. And if there is a jobless recovery or if living standards for Britain's middle continue to stall, the squeezes will be cross-cutting and socially pervasive. Across the board, there is going to be a squeeze.

If the Tories go into the next election offering tax cuts, Labour should seriously consider matching at least some of these. For now, Labour needs to keep focused on framing the next election as "the living standards election", because it will connect with the contemporary reality that voters are going to live through. They must hope for a recovery that raises living standards and returns the country to full employment.

Only when it fails to happen should they blame the government. The squeeze is coming and every voter will experience it in a different way. What matters is whether Labour can convince voters that it understands their squeeze and has solutions to help them feel better under Labour.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Peter Mandelson slams Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer for “not acting in the national interest”

The Labour peer and former cabinet minister accuses his party leader and the shadow Brexit secretary of having “torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose”.

The government has chosen to interpret last year’s sea-change referendum in an extreme way and embraced a set of positions and values on Brexit and migration that risk making the UK an illiberal, fractured and smaller nation, literally and economically.

How can the government get away with this? The referendum was not a landslide victory.  Millions of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem supporters voted on the other side. Only a proportion of the winners voted as they did for xenophobic reasons – and they certainly did not vote to make themselves poorer.

Despite this, the government has chosen a course of action – a hard Brexit – that reflects the views of vocal and influential hardliners, not the majority of the public. Minority opinion has never been more powerful.

Theresa May is putting her own interest ahead of the country’s. She does not want to be the fourth Tory prime minister to be politically crucified by her party on the cross of Europe. She is desperate for the support of the right-wing press and the nationalist wing of her party.  Where Cameron placated, she has actively empowered, regardless of cost. And she hopes the costs of a hard Brexit will only emerge the other side of the next general election.

But this does not explain Labour’s position. The party’s frontbench has effectively brushed aside the views and interests of the bulk of its own supporters who wanted to stay in the EU and now don’t want to jeopardise their jobs by leaving the single market and the customs union as well. They value migration and want to see it managed, not virtually ended.

By going along with hard Brexit now, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose the government’s approach when it fails later on. This is not acting in the national interest.

Nobody would claim that Brexit is easy to navigate politically, but Labour has rendered itself impotent on the most important set of issues facing Britain in most peoples’ lifetime. Setting a series of belated “tests” for the government will hardly reverse the damage.

The response to all this has to go beyond party politics. A national, pro-European effort should seek to unite opinion in civic society and mainstream politics, based on three Rs:

  • Resist. We have vocally to oppose what we don't agree with – we have to challenge and controversialise decisions so ‘new norms’ don't materialise. That is why pro-refugee, anti-Trump demos, the Gina Miller case, new newspapers or campaigns against hard Brexit are so important.
     
  • Renew. People with liberal, social democratic views have been losing  arguments on issues such as security, spending, globalisation, identity, migration, integration. We need to renew our policy offer in these areas – we need real alternatives not just raw anger. There is a lot that unites some Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs and activists across all these issues – but the networks to do new thinking have to be created.
     
  • Reorganise. We need a new generation of leaders who can inspire, locally and nationally, from both non-metropolitan and metropolitan neighbourhoods and parts of the country. Campaigns and parties have to put much more effort in to looking for new talent beyond their own organisations and boundaries. We need to hear fresh, authentic voices and end the idea that mainstream politics cannot speak for the majority.

If the centre left does not provide the leadership of this fightback, with Labour at its core, it will not have a future.

Peter Mandelson is a Labour peer, former business secretary and an architect of New Labour.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition