The Tories shouldn't celebrate until there is growth for all, not just for some

If this is a recovery, the voters will ask, why aren't we feeling it? Cameron and Osborne need to offer answers.

It was just six months ago that many economists feared the UK would suffer a triple-dip recession. Now, after estimated growth of 0.8% in the third quarter, the economy is growing at its fastest rate since 2010. Output is still 2.5% below its pre-recession peak (in the US, by contrast, it is 4.6% above) and the recovery has come three years later than promised, but George Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations. 

Yet as Labour will repeatedly point out today, for most of the public this is no recovery at all. In the most recent month, average weekly earnings grew by just 0.7%, a real-terms cut of 2% and the lowest figure on record. Incomes are not expected to rise until 2015 and and will not return to their pre-crash levels until 2023. The minimum wage is worth no more than it was in 2004 and 4.8 million workers are paid less than the living wage. If there is growth, the voters will ask, why aren't we feeling it? 

The charge that this is a recovery for the few, not the many, is one the Tories are particularly vulnerable to. It was Osborne who chose to cut the top rate of tax at the same time as presiding over the longest fall in living standards since 1870. The Conservative response to Labour's cost of living offensive is to deride it as a distraction from the primary task of fixing the economy, but this message is ill suited to a time when 11 million people have had no increase in their real earnings since 2003. Rising GDP is no longer a guarantee of rising wages. By successfully framing the debate since the conference season, Labour has positioned itself to take advantage of this trend. 

The Conservative hope remains that higher growth will feed into higher wages in time for the election, but before then they need emblematic policies to convince voters that they are on their side. On the fringes of the party, there is much good thinking taking place. The Conservative campaign group Renewal, which aims to broaden the party’s appeal among northern, working-class and ethnic-minority voters, recently published a pledge card calling for the building of a million new homes over the course of the next parliament, a significant increase in the minimum wage, a "cost of living test" for all legislation and action against "rip-off companies".

But by deriding intervention in the market as "Marxist", the Tories risk positioning themselves as the defenders of a failing system. When Margaret Thatcher assailed her left-wing opponents in the 1980s, she did so in the confidence that her free-market policies retained popular support and were delivering rising living standards. Cameron does not enjoy that luxury. To avoid being repeatedly trumped by Labour, the Tories will need to replace dogma with action. 

Chancellor George Osborne during a visit to AW Hainsworth and Sons on October 24, 2013 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution