How Labour can turn the economic recovery to its advantage

Osborne's instinct will be to use the extra revenue for faster deficit reduction or tax cuts. But Labour can argue for an alternative centred around investment.

Economic headlines are a tricky business when political parties are in opposition. The easy temptation is to treat bad news as good, and good news as bad. So how should Labour respond now that the economy finally appears to be on the mend? 

It's true that much is still wrong, with housing costs spiralling, pay stagnant and millions not working for as many hours as they wish to; but Labour must avoid always being 'glass half empty'. The party should celebrate good news and where possible draw the links to its own legacy in govermment. 

Take, for example, the largely unheralded announcement that the number of households where no one works had reached its lowest level since records began. In terms of family life chances, this is perhaps a more important measure than unemployment, and its low level is a credit to past Labour policies, for example the party's support for lone parents.

The politics of a 'recovery' election won't be easy, of course. The right-wing media will talk up the government's handling of the economy and George Osborne will try to use a nascent housing bubble and debt-funded consumer spending to create the veneer of prosperity. But this is not mission impossible. Labour has come to power in similar circumstances, in 1964 and 1997, and it's sometimes said that voters are more likely to turn to an untested Labour opposition when the economy is in reasonable health. 

Labour can win the economic debate by showing it is the only party which has positive answers on family living standards and long-term economic prosperity. The party will use the next two years to highlight the gradual erosion in standards of living, but now it must also start to announce convincing solutions for relieving pressurised family budgets, which are more persuasive than a Tory offer of pre-election tax cuts. That should mean short-term steps like a higher minimum wage and better support to help work pay for parents. 

But it also means unveiling policies which show that only Labour is truly seeking to shift the economic balance of power in favour of ordinary people. Fabian research published this month shows the public is overwhelmingly suspicious of a return to 'business as usual' and believes prosperity for families will not return without radical change in the way the economy works. Labour must define itself as the party of 'change' against 'more of the same'. 

Fiscal policy will provide another dividing line. In November, projections for future government revenue will be revised upwards for the first time since the coalition came to power. George Osborne's instinct will be to spend the extra money on faster deficit reduction or tax cuts. But Labour will be able to argue for an alternative, without being accused of hidden tax plans. The party should demand that the proceeds of growth are used to prevent the fraying of the services people value most and to increase investment geared to the future, which is gradually declining as a proportion of spending.

To prove Labour is the party of long-term prosperity, it could promise to use the extra revenue only to support the most productive areas of public spending, ploughing money generated from economic recovery back into investment in education and infrastructure. This commitment would supplant Ed Balls's current proposal for a one-off stimulus for capital spending, which is being taken over by events. Labour can show that it is the party of economic responsibility and long-termism by promising the first call on the extra money from recovery should be spending for our economic future.

Ed Miliband arrives on stage at the Labour Party conference on September 22, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Labour is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

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