If Labour cannot say what they are for or against then they have reduced the role of the opposition to a mere information source for government policy.
Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University
Today’s Guardian letter urging Ed Miliband to engage with a ‘wider movement’ in order to win power in 2015 is a bit tortuous at times. We are told that ‘the era of building the capacity and platforms for people to “do things for themselves, together” is now upon us.’
Does capacity and platform building ever have an era? Apparently so, and we are in it.
But there are some very serious points here, and ones the authors should be applauded for making.
Firstly, the ‘devolution of state institutions’ is indeed a pressing necessity and has to be a key part of Labour’s programme. As Rafael Behr and Jeremy Cliffe have highlighted this morning, there is an ongoing battle between the Labour centralisers and de-centralisers that may be of critical importance.
Devolving power has two strategic advantages: firstly it neutralises any charges of incompetence the Tories will doubtless continue to throw at the Labour leadership, and secondly it helps get around tricky questions surrounding the deficit and future borrowing. If local government can effectively deliver infrastructure off central balance sheet, why not give them a go?
As Dominic Rustecki and I argue in our recent Fabian Review essays England Expects, there are specific ideas at the ready.
These include the creation of a ‘National Devolution Council’ to hardwire the devolution of power into our political system, the raising of local authority borrowing caps to help build council housing, and the devolution of powers over localised stamp duty. Ed Miliband’s proposed British sparkassen of local banks could also be capitalised by a Financial Transaction Tax on riskier elements of our banking system.
The devolutionary ideal does not need to descend into the academic, but can be imbued through very specific action.
There is a pressing need to be bold. As the letter notes, ‘if Labour plays the next election safe, hoping to win on the basis of Tory unpopularity, it will not have earned a mandate for such change’.
That is certainly true, but more likely they will not gain a mandate at all. If the election descends into ‘you crashed the car in 2008’ versus ‘same old Tories’ then the electorate will probably reward the latter as the economy continues to grow.
Ed Miliband’s budget response was not his finest. By now the electorate is pretty sure what type of education most of the Cabinet have had. But if they voted – going back – for Cameron (just about), Blair, Macmillan and Clem Attlee then clearly the old school tie is not the paramount concern as voters enter the ballot box.
Besides, presumably Labour actually want to win southern marginals in areas like Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Norwich and elsewhere. Many of these seats have major private schools in or near them. There may be a tipping point not too far off where these, perhaps ex-Lib Dem parents begin to feel tarred with the Bullingdon brush. These voters may not be the primary focus of a future Labour government, but they may help make or break one.
Labour needs to be forensically targeted in its approach from this point on. Ed Balls has been right to highlight that every new pledge will be costed. But some of the party’s messaging has been sloppy. The ‘24 Tory tax rises’ press release was largely forgotten in the wake of Bingo-gate, but it was a bizarre affair.
According to George Eaton, ‘a party spokesman emphasised to me that Labour is “not opposed” to all of the tax rises (not least because some of them are progressive) but that it wanted to remind people that Osborne has “put taxes up significantly”.’
Forget today’s letter in the Guardian, Eaton’s source has made the most garbled utterance over the last seven days. If Labour cannot say what they are for or against on that list then they have reduced the role of the opposition to a mere information source for government policy.
The message may remind people that Osborne has raised some taxes (he is after all the chancellor), but it might also suggest that Labour are against measures like increased stamp duty on £2m+ homes or taxation on beer and cigarettes. Sloppy messaging worked to some degree in 2011 and 2012, but it’s not going to work as the election draws nearer and growth continues.
Labour have a fantastic shot at office. Even though the party should be looking to go further on issues like financial sector taxation, the living wage, a VAT cut, and infrastructure spending Ed Miliband has put the party in a very good position. Fixed-term parliaments have also changed the nature of what an opposition leader can and should be doing.
But we are now on the home straight. It is time Labour got ready not only for the May 2015 campaign, but to hit the ground running from day one when in office. That is a challenge for the broader labour movement as well as its leadership.
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