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 a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.