Ed Miliband talks to students during a press conference at Belfast Art College on January 22, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour needs more radical policies to avoid losing its base

The party's policies do not measure up to the needs of post-recession Britain.

Labour isn’t just fighting to win on 7 May but is fighting for its long-term survival. Greece, Spain and, closer to home, Scotland show what happens when social democratic parties disconnect with their core voters. Labour faces real electoral threats from insurgent parties of the right and the left that are targeting our base. Some people have argued that Labour should have a safety-first manifesto in order to reassure target voters. I argue that only a radical manifesto will give the party the clear identity it needs to galvanise existing supporters and reach out to the voters we have lost since 2005. A November 2014 ComRes survey showed that only 29 per cent of voters agreed with the statement that "Ed Miliband stands up for working people". 

My new pamphlet, Labour’s Eleventh Hour, shows that the erosion of our base of working class support has deep roots. While our problems in Scotland are obvious, Labour has had problems retaining and mobilising our base across the whole of Britain for some time. The 2010 election saw big falls in working class support in places like Southampton. Some within Labour place exclusive focus on the need to engage middle income voters in southern English marginal constituencies. However, the 2014 European elections saw Ukip poll well in southern Tory-Labour marginals in working class wards and this represents a real threat to our ability to win these seats in May. Labour can only win if we mobilise our traditional core vote and reach out to aspirant voters in southern England. A more recent development is the increase in the Green Party’s support. The Greens are gaining momentum amongst younger voters, exactly the group of the population where Labour should be intensifying its support. Ukip’s target voters often identify with positions that are to the left of the Labour Party on issues not relating to identity and culture.

Labour’s policies do not measure up to the needs of post-recession Britain. Labour lacks robust policies to adequately address job insecurity, low pay, housing pressures and the financial stresses facing young people Labour’s Eleventh Hour documents the high levels of insecure employment and under-employment faced by many heartland voters. Job insecurity is not restricted to those on zero-hours contracts but is a wider feature of the working conditions faced by people in retail, care and hospitality – a fifth of all employment. Young people have experienced a sharp downward pressure on their wages since the financial crisis of 2008. Significant numbers of middle income voters face the prospect of serious mortgage repayment difficulties if interest rates increase by 2.9 per cent. My pamphlet also highlights the housing pressures that are affecting target voters in the south of England.

We have also failed to tell a clear and compelling story that explains why Britain needs a radical progressive government. The Tories have told consistent stories about welfare dependency and deficits in order to anchor their policies. Labour should be telling a clear and self-confident story that wealth and opportunity has become too narrowly distributed in today’s Britain and that the financial crisis took place in large part because a wealthy elite pursued its interests at the expense of the rest of society.

Labour should embrace policies in its manifesto that show heartland voters that we are serious about tackling their concerns. We should set a target to move one million workers onto the living wage. We should back new incentives to drive up the skills of young people in the workplace. The private sector should be given new legal duties to deliver equal pay for women and to challenge low status female employment. Labour also needs to adopt more radical proposals for paying the deficit down in a fair manner, including additional wealth taxes and overturning the provision that allows British-based companies to avoid taxes on their overseas earnings.

Labour should take ownership of the democracy agenda. We should be willing to back moves to direct democracy in social policy matters and require local decision makers to show how they have acted on the views of local people following public consultations.

Some people have argued that Labour needs to embrace austerity policies in order to build electoral confidence. If Labour were to adopt these policies in government, it would lead to severe public spending cuts in local government, housing and education. Working class voters would be greatly impacted by these cuts with the risk that these policies would intensify their alienation from Labour.

Even at this eleventh hour, Labour could adopt policies that would rally our electoral base. Tackling low living standards and insecure work could unify low and middle-income target voters. We need a bold and progressive manifesto that rallies our core support in order to secure the turnout Labour needs on election day. In France and Spain, the traditional left has been outflanked by populist insurgents of the right and left. In Germany the Social Democrats have never recovered after adopting free market policies that alienated working class voters. In the months to come, we must show real determination that this will not happen in Britain.

Matthew Sowemimo is the author of the new Compass pamphlet Labour's Eleventh Hour

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt