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