"One Nation" Labour has no choice but to fight hard in Eastleigh

The by-election is an important test of the party's ability under Miliband to appeal to southern voters.

Much has been said about the challenges the Eastleigh by-election will pose for the two parties of government, and it’s true that either David Cameron or Nick Clegg will face awkward questions from their party after 28 February. But Ed Miliband has no cause for smugness just yet.

Having failed to even get 10 per cent of the vote in Eastleigh in 2010, there will be little pressure on the Labour candidate in the by-election, who will be announced today. Yet the seat is a test of the party's ability under Miliband to appeal to southern voters. John Denham, the MP for neighbouring constituency Southampton Itchen, is leading the Labour campaign, and highlights the election’s wider significance in Miliband's "One Nation Labour" project.

"The reason the Labour Party is fighting this seat seriously is not just because we want to get the best possible result here, but because, as a party that’s aiming to rebuild its base in the south, this is the sort of constituency, and the people who live here are the sort of people, that we want to represent.

"When we talk about being a One Nation Labour Party - south as well as north - we’re not just talking about the handful of places that might be target marginal constituencies at the next election but the whole of Southern England. If we can get that across really strongly, that in itself is a victory for us."

Predictably, Denham wasn't prepared to put a numerical figure on this "victory". Realistically, doubling the party’s share of the vote and breaking the 20 per cent mark would be a useful first step in Labour’s arduous task of regaining the trust of the south.

Such a result would rely largely on what Denham describes as "Labour-inclined [people] who voted Lib Dem in 2010 because they thought they were going to keep the Tories out and who are particularly bitter at the moment". Labour’s problem is that it's in their interests for such voters to bite their lip and support the Lib Dems again in 2015; the Conservatives are second in 38 of the Lib Dems’ 57 seats.

So while it’s easy to see the attraction for Labour in soft-pedaling in Eastleigh, it’s one that should be resisted. Light campaigning from the party might increase the chances of the Lib Dems holding onto the seat, but it would also be very risky: even without Nigel Farage as their candidate, Coral make UKIP evens to beat Labour. If that happened, it would be hard to suggest that the party's one nation extended south of the M25.  

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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George Osborne’s plan to use the tampon tax on women’s charities is terrible politics

It makes us think that funds from other taxes – the government’s general pot of money not raised by a tax on tampons – is proper money. Men’s money. Money not to be channelled into women-only causes.

It is not a pretty scene. “Guys,” says a male special adviser in George Osborne’s office, as they work late into the night finishing off the Spending Review. “What about, like, women?”

“Hmm,” nods another, finishing off his Byron burger disguised in a McDonald’s bag. “You’re right. We haven’t put any women in it.”

“Maybe we should give some extra money to women’s charities? I think there are some left. How about it, lads?” moots somebody else. Probably a man.

Everyone stops what they’re doing. Someone removes his tie, and solemnly rolls his sleeves up.

“Money? Where from?”

“Obviously not man money! We need that for proper things!” laughs the kind heart who wishes to fund women’s charities. “We’ll get women to pay for it themselves.”

“How? They don’t have any money to spend because of our austerity programme hammering them disproportionately hard!” chorus some Treasury bods in the background.

“Well, they pay for those luxurious little cotton thingies. Theyre always buying those. It’s some kind of monthly tax, I think. We could spend that on them?”

“Brilliant!” cries the Chancellor. And the most ridiculous announcement in this year’s Autumn Statement is born in a wave of high-fives and fitful backroom testosterone.

Yes, to much worshipful braying, Osborne stated with glee and pride in this year’s Autumn Statement that the VAT raised from women’s sanitary products – the “tampon tax” – will be spent on women’s health and support charities:

“There are many great charities that work to support vulnerable women, indeed a point that was raised in Prime Minister’s Questions. And my honourable friend the new member for Colchester has proposed to me a brilliant way to give them more help.

“300,000 people have signed a petition arguing that no VAT should be charged on sanitary products. Now, we already charge the lowest 5 per cent rate allowable under European law, and we’re committed to getting the EU to change its rules.

“Until that happens, I’m going to use the £15m a year raised from the tampon tax to fund women’s health charities and support charities. The first £5m will be distributed to the Eve Appeal, Safe Lives, Women’s Aid and the Haven, and I invite bids from other such good causes.”

It all ended with the Colchester MP and man Will Quince being patted on the back by fellow backbenchers for having such a tidy little idea:

Now, the government can’t help it that there is VAT on women’s sanitary products. Only the EU can change that. And, of course, any money being given to charities for vulnerable women is welcome – especially in light of the financial trouble women’s refuges have been facing due to cuts.

But this idea is crass politics. The way they’ve concocted and framed it is all wrong. It suggests that only money paid by women should support women’s services; if women are suffering, then it’s just the responsibility of female taxpayers. It’s their problem, and they should pay for it.

It also makes us think that funds from other taxes – the government’s general pot of money not raised by a tax on tampons – is proper money. Men’s money. Money not to be channelled into women-only causes. Ironic, as men should probably be picking up the tab for domestic abuse if anyone’s going to.

Of course, the government does spend general money on women’s charities – tampon tax revenue is just an extra boost. But the point is, why didn’t the Chancellor say that? Why didn’t he tell us how much the government is spending on women’s charities? And how it plans to make up for how hard domestic violence refuges have been hit by cuts? Cuts that are part of his austerity programme, by the way.

A neat little channel of a few million pounds from a wildly misjudged tax (tampons are a “luxury item” apparently) to a few women’s charities shouldn’t be championed as a genius idea by the Chancellor and the male MP whose brainchild it is. As the Labour MP Jess Phillips yelled in the chamber: “You’re not paying it, George. I am!”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.