Labour's "economic credibility" problem

Everyone agrees that the party needs to spell out a clear alternative to the coalition's cuts -- so

As Labour gears up for its annual conference, the focus is, predictably, on the economy - namely, how the party can win back the public's trust. Growth may be but a distant dream, while unemployment figures offer no comfort, but the coalition's relentless message that "Labour got us into this mess" seems to have got through to the public.

The most effective line in Nick Clegg's speech to the Liberal Democrats' conference last week was when he hit back at Ed Balls' claim that the coalitions' cuts were "too far, too fast", by saying that Labour would have done "too little, too late."

The latest Guardian/ICM poll shows that only 34 per cent of voters think Labour has the right policies to rescue the economy. Even among definite Labour voters, only 66 per cent back the party's economic plans. This is despite other polls consistently showing that the public is nervous about the speed and scale of the governments' austerity measures.

What this shows is that it is not enough to point out that the economy is stalling: Labour must offer a detailed, solid plan about exactly what they would do differently.

This is a point made by Balls himself today. Discussing ways of winning back credibility in today's Guardian, he writes:

Families are not asking: "Who was right on the pace of deficit reduction?" They are asking: "Who can get Britain back on its feet?" I believe we can only win public trust by making the case for a credible and compelling plan that will revive growth, get unemployment falling, take the tough decisions to tackle the deficit in a balanced way, and transform our economy for the long term.

A new report (£) by the Fabians reiterates this point:

Saying we would cut, but not by quite as much, or that we will cut by some undetermined amount some time in the future, is not sufficient.

Everyone is agreed that Labour must produce an alternative plan to win back credibility. But this is hardly a new issue; the economy has been the dominant issue for the duration of this government and before. There is certainly a strong argument for not rushing such an important policy, but Miliband has now led the party for a full year. Labour should publish specific plans soon, and get the message out to the public. As we face the prospect of a renewed global economic crisis, there is a political opportunity for Labour -- but only if it presents a consistent, credible line tied to a concrete policy. If it waits too much longer, it may well be "too little, too late" to win back their credibility.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.