In sounding like a normal human being, Farage is picking up support.
Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University
By general consensus Nigel Farage won last night’s debate on Europe handsomely. It’s not rocket science why this was so. He has a clear message, articulates it in a manner ordinary people can relate to, and doesn’t sound triangulated. In his odd, blustering way, Farage offers some key lessons for the Labour leadership.
Of course Nick Clegg faced some tough odds. The case for Europe is more academic than it is visceral. And even as the economy picks up, he’s still deputy prime minister of an unpopular government fighting against the jovial outsider. Farage would have had to have imploded to have lost, and he didn’t.
The YouGov polls handing two convincing victories to Farage were no surprise. Clegg tried the old ‘to the camera’ stuff of 2010. He played a studied, mannered man in the LBC debate, and then switched to being an aggressive street fighter on the BBC a week later. Although he may have shored up his own vote, neither tactic was massively convincing in reaching out beyond his own, dwindling base.
Arguments aside, perhaps most jarringly Clegg dropped a series of weak jokes and lame puns.
And yet, though Miliband wisely dodged the debate itself, Labour probably would have done similar – we’d of heard of UKIP’s policies leading to a #heinekentax, a tax cut for Abramovich, and a Gene Huntisation of our police force.
Things politicians think sound catchy but just aren’t. The Conservative bingo poster was certainly offensive, but it was only the tip of the Westminster iceberg. All parties, but particularly an opposition looking to become more serious in the year prior to the election, need to accept that perhaps politics can occasionally be expressed in terms longer than fit into a single tweet.
Labour’s current problem is that, the energy bill freeze apart, it all sounds reactive and too eager to please. Much of what they are saying would be enthusiastically backed by voters were it not so blindingly obvious that this is precisely the reaction Labour appear to be after.
Borrowing the Lib Dem’s mansion tax to neutralise the previous government’s mistake over 10p. Using the Coalition’s bank levy (despite, accurately, criticising it earlier) to fund child care places. Re-introducing Darling’s bankers’ bonus tax. All perfectly sensible moves in and of themselves, but all so calculated.
They are giving the people what polls say they want, and yet the polls indicate the people are becoming less and less interested in what Labour has to say. But it’s not such a paradox. It’s hard to argue you are offering genuine change when you’ve just gone at other politicians’ most recent policy buffet so ravenously.
The other major issue is of course that they have opposed almost everything the government has done.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, the welfare cap vote was in a sense too late. Having spent four years saying everything Cameron and Osborne have implemented is ‘Old Etonian,’ ‘out of touch,’ evidence of people ‘who just don’t get it’ and ‘same old Tories,’ it’s quite hard to make the transition to implement some tough decisions. As I’ve said on these pages before, Labour’s 24 Tory tax rises press release was a study in how not to look like a government in waiting.
Yet options remain.
According to a January 2014 treasury impact assessment, a £7 national minimum wage could be implemented at the cost of 14,000 jobs. No policy is riskless, and that is the trade-off. Yet in a growing economy, it would be worth the ire the right leaning press throws at Labour to outflank the government and guarantee such a minimum in year one of a Labour government.
A Living Wage by 2020 would be a similarly bold end. Labour can continue to carp about low pay, or they can actually make a decision about what (or even what not) to do about it.
On cost of living, cutting the basic rate of VAT back to 17.5 per cent (or lower) would actually add substance to the ‘cost of living crisis’ message but does not seem forthcoming. Labour is a political party not a consumer watchdog, it has the power to deal with the cost of living. Some policy beyond #freezethatbill might be nice. Pointing at stuff and claiming ‘that’s a bit price-y’ doesn’t cut the mustard.
Lastly, on financial sector taxation, a transaction tax on risky derivatives (particularly the parasitic contracts for difference market) would show Labour has learned serious lessons from 2008 and is prepared to face down elements of the City rather than go all Neville Chamberlain.
For a party obsessed with ‘cover,’ the fact that that implementing a broad-based FTT would actually involve a fivefold cut in the tax paid by purchasers of shares might be a nice sell. There’d be some angry headlines here, but that’s politics.
The point is that Labour should be actively seeking such conflict. You cannot please all of the people all of the time. Farage may be a little Englander with a tax policy that would cut the income tax and national insurance contribution of John Terry by £1.5m a year (you can have that one, Labour), but he’s actually had the courage to say something out of the political ordinary. And people respect that.
Arguments about what ‘Milibandism’ means, or whether a ‘35 per cent or 40 per cent strategy’ is the way to go are all very nice, but they only contribute to the notion that politics is, as Clegg mocked Farage for claiming, ‘a game.’
In sounding like a sentient normal adult, albeit with many faults, Farage managed to avoid that charge adroitly. Labour may take note.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.