The Labour campaign bus. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Leader: Political cross-dressing – how the Tories and Labour are fighting to cover faults

The party manifestos fight hard to cover up perceived weaknesses. Labour don't want to admit they'll borrow to invest; the Tories don't want to explain the welfare cuts.

The perception that Labour cannot be trusted to control the public finances has hardened into received wisdom. This might be unfair – Gordon Brown used to operate with considerable fiscal discipline and preach “prudence with a purpose” in the early years of the New Labour government – and it is largely a consequence of the aftermath of the financial crisis and the effectiveness of George Osborne’s rhetorical assault on Labour’s economic record. But it is a fact.

Distracted by a protracted and bitter leadership contest in 2010, Labour feebly allowed the Tory-led coalition to frame the fundamental economic argument as one of Labour profligacy v Tory competence. Fatuous and alarmist comparisons were made between Britain and Greece (which was trapped within the eurozone and, because it did not have an independent central bank, unable to use monetary policy to mitigate the effects of the downturn). While the Miliband brothers set about fighting each other, the Tories were winning over the British public to the view that Labour was to blame for the debt crisis afflicting the country.

It is this perception that Ed Miliband very belatedly attempted to address with his front-page manifesto promise of “fiscal responsibility”: that each of Labour’s policies would be fully funded and require no additional borrowing and that he would eliminate the deficit by 2020, notwithstanding another recession or economic crisis.

The trouble for Labour is that the public has very little trust in politicians’ promises or “vows”, which is why Nick Clegg is so loathed, why Labour has become so unpopular in Scotland, where the SNP styles itself as an anti-austerity party, and why Tony Blair has never been forgiven for the Iraq war.

Mr Miliband’s mission in politics is to reduce inequality and to use the tax system and structural reforms of the economy to close the gap between the richest and the rest of us. Polling shows that his crackdown on “non-doms” commands widespread public support even if it might not raise much revenue, as does a rise in the minimum wage. Yet it is a sign of Labour’s weakness that it has felt obligated to offset every policy in this vein with tough talk about cutting benefits and the deficit. Mr Miliband knows that his party is vulnerable to caricature as a group of old-school socialists.

By contrast, the Tories have been spraying around unfunded commitments as if they had been subject to a secret takeover by Scandinavians. Individual ministers may struggle to explain where the extra money pledged for the NHS will come from but Mr Osborne’s calculation is that his economic credibility is sufficiently strong that a little wooziness will be forgiven. In the Tory manifesto, however, the party has moved from the arena of unachievable promises to downright regressive ones. Inheritance tax is currently paid by 6 per cent of estates, so raising its upper limit will benefit only the wealthy. And while “Right to Buy” was popular in its first incarnation under Margaret Thatcher, it has had devastating consequences. The social housing stock was never replenished; it created a new rentier class (a third of Right to Buy homes are rented out) and the state now subsidises more working families to rent in the private sector, causing the housing benefit bill to swell. It is to Labour’s credit that it has pledged to tackle this crisis at its source – lack of supply – with a housebuilding programme. There is also a cap on rent increases and a mansion tax, a move towards the asset taxes for which we have long argued. Earned income for low and middle earners is taxed too heavily (as is consumption; VAT is a regressive tax) and unearned income and static assets too little.

If there is a lesson to take from the Tory and Labour manifestos, it is that both are intent on neutralising their perceived weaknesses. Labour will not admit that it would borrow to invest (a necessary flexibility, as all Keynesians would understand) nor set out where serious cuts would be, and the Tories will not explain how they intend to make £12bn of welfare cuts and more – their numbers are so absurd as to be almost beyond discussion. The war of the weak is ending with both parties trying desperately to feign strength.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.