The lesson from Labour’s 1992 election defeat is that unless the party wins the economic argument it cannot deliver social justice, writes Meg Hillier MP.
Meg Hillier MP (Labour and Co-operative, Hackney South and Shoreditch) will be speaking at the Progress Annual Conference this Saturday, which Left Foot Forward is media-partnering; for tickets see here
After my first election in 1994 there was one question my colleagues and I asked, whatever our political view.
Given the attacks on public service and the deterioration of working conditions, how was it that the Tories not only won in 1992 but secured the largest ever Conservative vote in our history?
Labour had run an efficient campaign championing public service, especially the NHS (think Jennifer’s Ear). The polls told us our message was well received, but in the privacy of the ballot booth people who had told us that they would be voting Labour voted for five more years of John Major.
We won the argument about social justice; the Conservatives won the argument about economic performance and the election.
The lesson from this is that unless we win the economic argument we cannot deliver social justice. At this stage of opposition we have space for philosophical debate. But let’s not be too self indulgent.
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Back in the 1990s I tramped around doorsteps with fellow councillors, including Stephen Twigg and James Purnell, speaking to council tenants in properties with windows which were leaky and dangerous. Debates about the best model for a landlords raged, largely among those who did not live in council housing. Tenants just wanted decent homes.
That was delivered by massive investment from a Labour government. Thousands of tenants have warmer, better homes.
For 18 years now, as a councillor, as a member of the London Assembly and as an MP, I have represented constituents on the edge of the City of London. There are huge inequalities between the greatest concentration of wealth creation in the UK and the highest poverty nationally.
These experiences tell me that robust economics is not just electorally necessary, it is necessary to deliver social justice. In a failing economy, it is the poorest who lose out most.
House prices may continue to rocket in Knightsbridge, but unemployment in my constituency is at 12.7 per cent. Child poverty in nearby Tower Hamlets is the worst in the country. And for every stop eastwards on the Jubilee line life expectancy falls by one year.
In retrospect the last government’s economic strategy was a two-trick pony: financial and professional services powered the economy, the proceeds reinvested in better public services. That gave us the most sustained period of economic growth in our post-war history.
We should be proud, and not concede to the Tories the myth that it was excessive spend on public services that caused our downfall. We should have been more vigilant in our supervision of banks, but that alone would not have protected us from the financial tsunami which swept the western world.
Our failure was not having a parallel economic strategy to reduce our reliance on the city. As a government we talked the talk about a green economy but we did not walk the walk. In my time as shadow energy secretary I saw that potential, and how little this government has done to tap that.
Secondly, we know the importance of Silicon Valley to the American economy. Apple alone now has the highest capital valuation of any company in the world. At the southern tip of my constituency we have Silicon Roundabout. There’s potential for local job creation.
Chancellor George Osborne was proud to boast at the launch of Google Campus recently that “everyone’s a start-up”. That’s good for the start-up entrepreneurs but doesn’t create the volume of jobs our economy needs. To be a world beater we need to be a bit bigger than a roundabout.
This government has failed to deliver a coherent and radical investment strategy. We need a government with a plan to help create jobs and sustain growth. A Labour Mayor of London and a Labour government delivered this for the East End of London through the Olympics.
Benefits accrue from our decisions to invest in better rail infrastructure. We could have seen economic benefit nationally if this government had delivered a proper airport hub for London.
Labour now needs to articulate our investment strategy to kick start the economy. We will have to make tough choices. Socialism, as Nye Bevan said, is the language of priorities, so we must make our priorities clear and show why we choose the investments we do and how these will deliver growth.
But we need an investment strategy that delivers for the UK and across the country.
For the last six months I have been on Parliament’s public accounts committee. On a weekly basis we have demonstrated failings in government: targets not met, savings that don’t save – but let’s be clear not all those initiatives arose under the Tories. We have to accept that not every pound spent by the last government was spent wisely, not every initiative delivered value.
We cannot just defend the existing configuration and delivery of public services. As the champions of public service we should be tougher than the Tories in insisting on value for money. Every pound of public money saved can be spent on the vast unmet need in constituencies like mine.
But we must also be honest that we must prioritise investment for growth.
And this is the tough bit – we have to accept that for the immediate future that means a continuing squeeze on spending on many public services. Many of the Tories seem delighted that public services are being squeezed. Some even make the mad claim that public services have squeezed out private sector growth. To defeat this madness we must not create myths of our own.
The way to get Britain growing is not the foolish slash and burn of Osborne, but nor is it the knee jerk defence of everything done in public service.
Our plan must be built on the twin pillars of a radical new public investment strategy to reenergise our economy and an equal commitment to continuous public sector reform. These give us the basis of an argument to take to the British people at the next election.