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  1. Politics
23 January 2015

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.

By Matthew Sowemimo

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.

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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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