How Labour is re-engaging non-voters

The party is responding to the sense that governments are powerless in the face of vested interests.

My election as the MP for Manchester Central has the unfortunate record of being the lowest turnout for a by-election, indeed any election, since the Second World War. In my constituency, turnout is particularly low in areas with high numbers of young people and students like Hulme and Ardwick.  

Our politics is broken, with turnout falling and people disengaged and switched off from politicians and the political process, but do developments over the last few weeks offer a turning point?

I’m part of the People's Politics Inquiry, the Labour Party's policy review on political engagement, I have been keen to speak to younger voters, or non-voters in most cases. What I've found, while not unsurprising, is telling and is making me re-think how I do things, and how we as a Pprty could start to address some of the issues.

I arranged to visit a Street League group of young people in my constituency to engage them in a discussion.  Street League is a charity which uses football to get 16-25-year-olds into work and training. Only one of the eight lads I met had ever voted but he couldn’t remember who for or why. At first they were sceptical about meeting and hearing from an MP. but what quickly unfolded was a highly political and informed discussion. They were intensely interested and knowledgeable in what was happening in their own communities, as well as national issues.  

Their views of politicians were familiar: we are all the same; we avoid answering questions; we don't look and sound like them; we don't understand their lives.  Even though these are familiar refrains, it's still depressing. On politics more generally, they don't vote or participate quite simply because they don't see politics as a vehicle for change.

They found me different to their perceptions of a politician but they still didn’t see me as being able to deliver change for them. They didn’t see that the choice of which party was in power mattered for their communities. They wanted to see politicians and parties rooted in their communities. Physically present amongst them, not just on the airwaves or on social media. 

The group felt that politicians were part of a cosy club, which ensures that all their interests are looked after while everyone else pays the price. 

I take from my conversations that, yes, we must continue efforts to diversify our stock of politicians, but, perhaps importantly, we need to encourage and help create a political culture that allows for difference, for greater freedom to be outspoken and to live normal lives with their inherent mistakes. This isn't just a challenge for political parties but also for those who follow and report on politics. That’s why Ed Miliband’s stance on the Mail is such an important marker. Politicians and their families must be allowed to have lives.

On policy, we need to be bigger and bolder in our politics. The lads from Street League articulated what many others feel: that the power of politics and governments is increasingly limited in the face of vested interests – global financial markets, big business, train and energy companies and so on. Ed Miliband's ambitious challenge to these cosy clubs, as he showed with the energy companies last week, is very important here. We must continue to flesh out a bold policy programme across a range of areas as we build on what has the potential to be a powerful and popular cause.

Ed Miliband is on to something. I will continue my dialogue with non-voters to see how they respond to this new direction as we build towards the general election and beyond, taking action for the many against the vested interests of the powerful. 

Delegates walk past a banner outside the Labour conference on September 23, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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