Labour must not "shrink the offer" in 2014

Those urging the party to avoid radical talk of reforming capitalism and remaking society fail to understand the deep-rooted wish for change.

By rights, 2014 should be a dud year in the political calendar, a phoney war prefacing the resumption of full hostilities in the election year to follow. That’s perhaps how Cameron and Clegg envisaged it as they cut the deal on a fixed term parliament that they hoped would let the economic cycle turn and the prospect of vote-grabbing giveaways hove back into view. Of course, that’s not how it’s played out.

As far as Labour is concerned, 2014 is the year when we push through the onslaught from Crosby and Cameron, to define the government we hope to form and the change we hope to be. We are confident that we will withstand this Lynton-led assault, thanks not least to the strength, determination and bloody-minded resilience of Ed Miliband. Yes, it will be tough.  But it is our very success so far in sloughing off Crosby’s slurs and connecting with the British people on the issues that matter to them – the cost of living crisis, above all else – that points the way forward. Now, some of those commentating on our party advise us to limit the Tories’ scope for attack by narrowing the political front on which we are engaged, to "shrink the offer" as we approach the business end of this parliament. But those calls will be resisted and rejected, because they fail to understand the deep-rooted wish for change, for another way of doing things, that is so widely felt across our country.

The logic of this marketing jargon is simple. Don’t frighten the horses with radical talk of reforming capitalism and remaking society, just lead them gently to water and, on current form, they’re likely to drink from our well. Yet the reason Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is reconnecting and rebuilding is precisely because of the boldness with which Ed has identified the core challenges which face our country and the radical ambition he has shown to address them. That’s what he did when he took on Murdoch and the Mail’s slur against Ralph Miliband, articulating the commonplace conviction that too often our press does not live up to the values of the British people.

That’s what he did when he coined the term 'squeezed middle', finding words that resonate because they are the truth for the vast majority of working men and women in our country. And that what he does when he talks of reforming capitalism, reflecting a widespread and deeply felt discontent with our unbalanced economy and the divided society and shrunken politics it has created. People may not be massing at the barricades in Britain, but they know Ed Miliband speaks for them when he says we can do better than this. And they want us to show them how.

And that, in essence, is the great challenge that 2014 poses for Labour.  It means longsighted ambitions, like a million new homes and a million green jobs. It means debunking old orthodoxies, such as the claim that you can’t buck the market, as we will do when we break up energy companies and freeze the bills. And it means having the faith of true progressives in the innate ability and good hearts of the great majority of British people and so investing in them: in their businesses and their skills, in their families and communities, in every part of our One Nation.

Far from a phoney war, 2014 is a critical period for Labour. It will be a year when, in stark contrast to the smear tactics and stunted ambition of Crosby and Cameron, we will expand our positive message for Britain, through practical policies, like the energy freeze or the Living Wage. It will be a year when we continue to set the agenda for a fairer economy and a more equal society. It will be a year when we help the British people to find hope once again, with a Labour Party that is the people’s party once more.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.