The 2010 election is the first since 1992 when the question “Who will govern?” could be genuinely at stake. The first New Year skirmishes of the long campaign showed the Conservatives surprisingly underprepared, but Labour vulnerable to self-harm.
This Saturday’s Fabian New Year conference “Causes to Fight For”, with the New Statesman as a media partner, will examine how the left could influence the election-year agenda. Labour is a clear underdog, yet even the current 10-point poll deficit may not translate into a Tory Commons majority. To close the gap, Labour needs to persuade the fragmenting coalitions of voters which brought it three victories that the election result matters.
Can Labour persuade working-class voters that the threat of Tory austerity is sufficent reason to turn out?
And, on the liberal left, will Staggers readers, many of them disillusioned with Labour, feel they have a stake in the outcome? How might Labour seek to re-engage?
Be honest about the record
An honest account of Labour’s record on progressive causes would argue that it is substantial but mixed. Labour could not have done a great deal more on international development, but some will never forgive it over Iraq. There was significant progress on pensioner and child poverty, but not in reversing inequality. The minimum wage and more money for schools and the NHS made a difference, but there was an uncritical reliance on finance-led growth.
Ed Miliband has belatedly brought more vigour to a pale green record. Key constitutional reforms — freedom of information and devolution — will endure, but a new constitutional settlement was kicked into the long grass. Britain is more socially liberal, with the quiet revolution of civil partnerships, yet arguments about crime, immigration and welfare have often become harsher.
In each of these areas — excepting civil liberties, the most significant blind spot — the Conservative leadership has conceded significant territory to Labour’s record, rhetorically at least. It is now for Labour to show that its future agenda has substantively more to offer those seeking a fairer, more equal and greener society.
Ensure Labour has a positive message
The focus of Labour’s campaign has been on ensuring that the Conservatives face the scrutiny of a would-be government-in-waiting. That the Conservatives are ahead in framing the election year can be seen in how often ministers seem forced to contest Tory narratives — a debt crisis, the broken society, or the (ludicrous) idea that Labour has declared “class war”.
The related charge that Labour has a “core vote” strategy does not stack up: the party was rather more vocal in its condemnation of lack of “fat cat” support for a windfall tax and over “rewards for failure” under Tony Blair in 1997 than it is over banker bonuses now.
The intention is to intimidate Labour into muting its positive argument. This should be framed around the idea that “fairness doesn’t happen by chance”, and is a question of policy choices not political language, with substantive tests — in whom we tax and where we spend — of what a politics of fair chances and fair rewards means as distributional choices get tougher.
Be clearer about spending
But that also depends on Labour opening up the “what not to spend” debate. The Conservative strategy is “safety first and run down the election-year clock”. The fledgling centrist Cameronism of 2006-2007 has shrunk to pledging the status quo on the NHS (and development) in exchange for a “doctor’s mandate” for austerity and cuts everywhere else. (The opening “Trust Dave” poster is explicit about this offer). Only by being more open about its own future spending plans in the March Budget, however painful, will Labour open up what cutting faster and deeper entails.
Sow the seeds of a new pluralism
Whatever the outcome in 2010, the economic and political crises of the past two years make new thinking necessary on key questions, from a more sustainable “next capitalism” to new ways of doing politics, too.
Restarting these conversations can be difficult. Despite its broad popularity in the mid-1990s, New Labour narrowed into a politics of certainty that repelled those not part of “the project” — a sharpness reciprocated in critiques from those to its left.
Pluralism needs to be a two-way street. Labour is essential, but probably not sufficient, to future governing projects of the left. Debate is the stuff of politics. One of the first challenges of a new pluralism is whether, where we disagree, we can do so with mutual respect.
Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He blogs at Next Left