Show Hide image

Fairness - or nothing

Labour must face down the Tories on the "fair" agenda with concrete policies that they can't follow

There is an eerie calm as the new political season creeps into life. A leadership death-match, touted as a near-certainty a month ago, has quietly melted away. Nobody can quite fathom why Chancellor Darling, for so long the quiet man of the government, has deepened the economic gloom with his "You've never had it so bad" hyperbole. Most believe this was a cock-up, not a conspiracy, but it is an inauspicious sign as Downing Street prepares the autumn fightback that nobody dares call a relaunch.

The promised theme of "fairness" is the right banner. Labour must be the party of fairness, or it is nothing. However, restoring the claim after the 10p tax debacle will not be easy. And Gordon Brown's allies worry about whether any message can break through the personality politics or Labour's navel-gazing factional scrap between über-Blairites and the oppositionist left. A bigger problem may be that those in Westminster and Whitehall, looking through the wrong end of the telescope, habitually overestimate whether policy changes will even register with voters. Last summer's promise of a "new constitutional settlement", heralded as restoring public "trust", has become a mere tidying-up exercise that the wonks struggle to keep track of.

Can "fairness" avoid the same fate? Who will say they are against fairness? Certainly not David Cameron and George Osborne. Indeed, the Conservatives have made a virtue of the contradiction, with their commitment to shrink the state: they tell us they are now the true progressives on poverty, climate change and development precisely because they know that the government can't address these issues.

Labour's opponents are opportunist. But that is what oppositions do. The problem is that the opportunism has not been called. Labour's argument should be the opposite: "Fairness doesn't happen by chance" - it depends on what governments do. And this must be fleshed out by concrete policy that can test the party's political opponents.

Yet the government seems to be hardening against a windfall tax for fuel poverty. Would shifting the tax burden to ask more from those who have done best be old Labour, even to fund council tax cuts for the many? Would setting a pathway to abolish prescription charges be too radical? Curbing MPs' outside earnings would send voters a "we get it" message, but what if a couple of high-earning backbenchers rebel?

Each of these popular, progressive ideas would command majority support. The government should not choose them all: a fightback cannot be won with long policy shopping-lists while the problem of a lack of political definition remains. But it must, to stand for something, choose an idea that cannot be dismissed as more of the same.

That entails breaking a new Labour taboo or two on the explicit argument for social democracy and redistribution. A downturn is difficult for any incumbent government, but it is Labour's chance to make the case for collective security and sharing risks. In the much more right-wing US political culture, Barack Obama made an unabashed case to the Democratic convention for the protective role of government regulation, using language that Labour ministers baulk at: "Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves - protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education, keep our water clean and our toys safe . . ."

It may be difficult to remember now that new Labour was once a broader, bolder, more pluralist argument: the party of a windfall tax, the minimum wage and a discretionary tax rise to fund the NHS, of rewarding effort but voicing considerable anger at fat cats. It should again be for rights and responsibilities at the top of our society, and not only at the bottom.

A year ago, the Conservatives seemed to be staring defeat in the face. They went for a right-wing, popular agenda on inheritance tax from which Labour retreated. Yet the rebranded Tories would acquiesce to most of the popular fairness policies that Labour fears may be too bold.

We will be told endlessly that this autumn is Brown's last chance. It is more than that. The fairness argument will test Labour's ability to entrench the party's legacy, challenge its opponents and tell the country what it would want a further term for. There is still time. Just about.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.