To win in 2015, Labour must reject Conservative austerity

Arguing that the party will be "tougher than the Tories" risks letting the Conservatives back into the game.

If the old maxim that whoever sets the agenda wins is true, then David Cameron is in even greater trouble than the polls suggest. Ed Miliband has led on numerous issues from Leveson to Syria and is defining the terms of debate again with his defence of living standards. His call for an energy price freeze has succeeded in reviving Labour's fortunes, with the Tories responding with their own pale imitation on water bills.

But if Labour has won the battle, how can it win the war? With wages down by an average of £1,500 a year since David Cameron became Prime Minister and prices outstripping earnings in 39 of the last 40 months, a clear break with austerity is needed. Yet the Tories intend the next parliament to be marked by the toughest years of cuts yet. A taste of just how bad things are going to get was provided by an unlikely source. The Conservative chair of the Local Government Association predicted councils will go bust after the next round of severe budget cuts in 2015-16.

Alternatives are needed and that’s why the Labour Assembly Against Austerity has been established. Its launch conference this Saturday will look at the further policies needed to develop the agenda around defending living standards as an alternative to the Tory plan to deepen austerity. Its launch statement has already won the support over 20 MPs and over 500 councillors and activists.

While Ed Miliband is reflecting the public mood, those in our party arguing that Labour needs to reject policies such as a Living Wage are out of touch with the majority. After years of rip-off energy policies and crowded and expensive trains, the public wants more action against these companies who abuse their monopoly position to win super-profits for the few. From soaring payday loan use to growing NHS waiting lists, millions have a story to tell on how austerity is making life tougher.

Labour has everything to gain by promoting more polices that take on vested interests and the failed cuts agenda. Conversely, arguing that Labour will be "tougher than the Tories", as some shadow cabinet ministers recently have, will let the Conservatives back into the game.

Polls show that Labour has a strong lead over the Conservatives on being best able to provide jobs, keep prices down and improve living standards. It’s by offering a progressive economic alternative to austerity that it can best reach out to a broad coalition of voters left worse off by the coalition.

Cat Smith is Labour PPC for Lancaster and Fleetwood

Ed Miliband with David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. Photograph: Getty Images.

Cat Smith is Labour PPC for Lancaster and Fleetwood

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.