Comment: Labour has gone from being the party of hope to the party of envy

Labour must take back ownership of the positive side of the equality message


‘If you don’t have anything positive to say, then don’t say anything at all’ is a saying my mother used regularly during my childhood . Just as it worked to reign in my more destructive tendencies back then, it would be a pretty good strategy for whoever wins the Labour leadership election to take forward into his or her first year of leading the opposition.

It might not seem so right now, especially given the farcical scenes from the welfare bill vote, but at its heart I believe Labour has a positive story to tell that really resonates with the public. Fundamentally, the party is about equality. Given that there are few concepts more universally popular than fairness, it shouldn’t really be a hard concept to sell.

Labour has got into difficulty over this in recent years because it has slowly run out of positive ways to help those who have fallen behind to catch up. As it has done so, it has replaced them with ideas that threaten to drag those who are racing ahead back into the mire.

Slowly but surely, the party of hope has become the party of envy. While it could of course be claimed that everyone being as miserable as each other is still an equality of sorts, it really isn’t an equality many people are going to vote for.

This is clearly a real problem for Labour because if it wants to win in 2020, it not only needs to secure the vote of those who are struggling, but also win the backing of those who are making a success of things.

If you ask the sort of relatively well-off middle class people Labour need to win over who they voted for in May, and how they came to that decision, most will say they tried to take into account not only their own welfare, but the good of the country too. Contrary to a lot of the rhetoric coming out of some sections of the Labour Party, most people in this demographic will find the idea of voting for measures that help the least well-off attractive.

They just become far less keen to do so if these measures simultaneously put the financial security of themselves and their offspring in jeopardy. Faced with a Labour Party who seemed hell bent on levelling the playing field by any means possible, it isn’t surprising that so many of Britain’s middle classes could not bring themselves to vote them into power.

For all his faults, Tony Blair proved unequivocally that almost everyone can be convinced to vote in favour of some form of personal sacrifice in order to achieve a more equal society. The message just has to be delivered in the right way.

Since the Blair years, Labour has gradually moved away from a narrative of collaborative social good towards an approach which looks to apportion blame to one group for the plight of others and punish them accordingly.

As May’s election result proves, this not only alienates anyone who has had the temerity to do ok for themselves, it isn’t an attractive message to those who are struggling to get by either. After all, if your neighbours are having a party at their house and you aren’t invited, you probably won’t want someone to head next door and shut the whole thing down on your behalf. Someone who promises to move the party out onto the street and invite everybody who lives on the road has a much more attractive proposition.

Before it can even consider challenging the Conservatives, Labour has to take back ownership of the positive side of equality. The first step in this process is for the next Labour leader to spend the first 18 months in the role reminding the public that equality done the Labour way lifts people up; without dragging anyone else down.

For Labour to win back the public by 2020, it must first curb the constant stream of negative, impotent rhetoric on inequality that dominates its output and turn its attention to communicating positive, concrete ideas that will deliver real equality to every corner of Britain.

Louis Clark writes on business and politics at and is a member of the Chingford & Woodford Green Labour Party.

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.