How can Labour escape the Tory trap?

How can Labour escape George Osborne's traps without losing its soul?

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It is five months since the exit poll that shattered Labour’s dreams of a return to office after just one term. Now, after an extraordinary summer of internal debate, the party must face up to the task the electorate has presented it with: opposing the first majority Conservative government of the 21st century.

The programme laid out in the Queen’s speech and budget earlier this summer was designed to cut Labour from off a large part of its traditional vote. Many Conservatives truly believe they have discovered a recipe that will confirm Labour’s demise as a party of the working class. 

They will attempt to present themselves as the champions of quality education, affordable homes and decent wages for working people. At the same time, they will encourage Labour to use all its political energy on opposing austerity, defending its welfare policies, and aligning itself with big public service unions.

This sets Labour an unprecedented challenge, because blanket opposition using terms set by Conservatives will give the government exactly what they want, whilst risking further damage in the eyes of the electorate. The test of Labour’s skill will be whether it can use this hazardous environment to spring the trap, and instead establish a new identity that takes it beyond the government’s intended stereotypes.

Part of the response will inevitably be tactical, seizing opportunities as they arise. Labour will want to demonstrate that it can cause the government discomfort and challenge its still slender majority. But the choice of which fights to pick must be determined by the basic tasks of opposition: how can bad law can be made better, and where can Labour tell a new story about itself to the public?

This requires looking at where the government is politically vulnerable. Areas of obvious weakness include the reductions in working tax credits, which have been condemned by ‘one nation’ Conservatives; the EU referendum bill, where the government is inevitably mired in in-fighting; and the troubled and divisive HS2 project. Labour should also hold the government to account for its shambolic energy policy, and for its sustained failures in foreign policy, where its stance neither protects the national interest nor reflects the values of British people.

Labour’s effectiveness in all of these areas will be hugely increased if it can build cross-party and non-partisan alliances. In an era of rock bottom political trust, voices from outside of party politics can be uniquely effective in rallying opposition. The IFS, for example, will generally carry greater weight than Labour in determining if the government’s budgets really do ‘hit the poorest hardest’.

No doubt some upcoming battles are already whetting the appetite of Labour MPs. But to succeed in the job of re-building electoral trust, there are also areas where Labour must learn a language of unambiguous support, like the devolution bill.

Labour has been comprehensively outflanked on devolution by the ‘northern powerhouse’ project. Whatever the political purpose behind its design, ‘Devo-Manc’ is a fantastic opportunity to build civic pride, spread power, drive efficiencies and turn around some of the country’s worst health outcomes. It is also an opportunity for Labour politicians to control significant regional budgets at a time when it is out of power in Westminster. Yet Labour has gone out of its way to find fault with the government’s devolution deal, too often sounding grudging and churlish. Instead, as Tristram Hunt put it, “we must shelve our timidity, match the Tory offer and go beyond it”.

But the biggest test for Labour will come in the form of the strategic elephant traps that have been laid by the Conservatives. While these are undoubtedly politically fraught, they also present opportunities for deep thinking about the party’s intellectual underpinnings. They are the prisms through which Labour must ask itself what is it for, in modern Britain?

The Welfare Bill is a case in point. One of Labour’s biggest strategic weaknesses is that it is seen as the “party of welfare”. As a recently unearthed memo written by Ed Miliband’s pollster in 2010 put it: “Labour is seen to have been a principal architect and defender of a benefits culture.”

The easy thing to do here would be to blame the right-wing media for promulgating a ‘scrounger’ narrative, attempt to reframe ‘welfare’ as ‘social security’, and oppose all changes to existing welfare provision with righteous fervour. The harder thing would be to accept that, when people think of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’, they have a point; not because providing a safety net for the most vulnerable is a problem in itself, but because for over half a century, Labour has mistakenly treated fiscal transfers through the tax and benefits system as the only route to achieving a more equal society.  

The perverse consequences and missed opportunities of this approach, which side-lines contribution and a sense of fair play and pushes work to the margins of Labour’s political story, are deeply felt in the country. The challenge for Labour is to develop a different answer – one that reimagines the left’s purpose in an era of globalisation, scarce resources and complex problems. The work of Labour’s policy review in the last parliament, shelved with indecent and ill-judged haste before the election, provides a credible basis upon which to build.

If Labour were able to offer an alternative story on welfare and social justice, they would have a least a chance of defining themselves on their own terms. In so doing, they would also free themselves to exploit the Conservative’s weak flank: a welfare reform programme that leaves working people worse off. But to get a hearing on this issue will require a reckoning not just on welfare, but on the wider politics of austerity.

Labour must understand that the sharp differentiation from the government that the party seeks on spending must be found within a very shallow pool of economic trust; and that by proclaiming itself first and foremost an ‘anti-austerity’ party, Labour will dry up that pool still further. The alternative is to make the case for prudent public spending, focussed on areas that build resilient communities and a productive economy. Priorities should include early years care, devolved spending on infrastructure, and high quality apprenticeships. 

The government has made little secret of its intention to use this parliament to cement Labour into a series of attitudes that will alienate it from working people. If Labour sets out humbly to rebuild its relationships with these people, and through this to shape a vision for a just and democratic economy, it will not only have renewed its sense of purpose; it will also have regained its freedom to act.

 

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