Labour has plenty of ammunition but is distracted by in-fighting
As the Conservatives unleash more years of austerity, the country is crying out for an effective opposition. What we have instead is a mess.
The leadership election was supposed to be a period of profound soul searching for the Labour party, one that reached out, not just to the rank and file of party members, but to voters that have been deserting Labour since 1997.
Whatever some candidates might suggest, we no longer have a ‘core’ vote that is large enough to propel Labour back to power. The blunt truth is that no party can ever win an election without reaching out to parts of the country that might not seem like ‘traditional’ terrain for it. One last push or a slightly more glitzy version of what the party offered voters in May will not suffice.
But over the past few weeks we have not given candidates the opportunity to do the soul searching that is necessary. They have not been tested hard enough, and the topics that have been raised have been woefully thin on the ground.
Let’s take the tax credits debate as an example. The question Labour should be asking is not about tactics over one policy or another, but the more fundamental question of how a Labour welfare state should look. At its heart should be a system that rewards and encourages work wherever possible.
When the chancellor praised the work of Sir George Bain for the Resolution Foundation as the basis of his living wage policy, why did Labour not relentlessly point out that the very same Resolution Foundation concluded shortly after the Budget that:
“The National Minimum Wage (and Living Wage) and tax-credits complement each other. The current Living Wage would have to rise to a significantly higher level in the absence of in-work support.
“For instance, the London Living Wage would jump from £9.15 to £12.65 without any in-work support. Even without taking account of today’s cuts to in-work support, RF estimates that the current national Living Wage would rise to £10 by 2020.”
Yes, many of the leadership candidates have made this point, but instead of taking the case to the public, their arguments have been lost in an internal party debate on positioning.
All the while, as the party turns in on itself, the government’s rigging of the political system continues unabated with trade union reforms designed to choke off funding for the Labour Party; granting votes for life to Brits abroad who are most likely to vote Conservative; and cutting the number of MPs in an attempt to consolidate their own position in the Commons.
And what about the Office for Budget Responsibility arguing that 14,000 fewer homes will be built as a result of the Budget; or the 13 million families that the Institute for Fiscal Studies argues will be squeezed by the Budget; or the government’s shameful decision to delay from 2016 to 2020 the decision to cap care costs at £72,000?
The ammunition for Labour to use against the government is there, and there is a wide open space for a robust, progressive alternative to be articulated. What we are getting, however, is a damp squib of a leadership contest that raises the very real prospect of Labour remaining unelectable for a generation.
As a party we can huff and puff all we like but the Conservatives were not elected because Labour was not left-wing enough.
We need to speak to people’s aspirations, their hopes, and their ambitions for themselves and their children as they are and not as we might want them to be.
Labour is best when it is prepared to adapt to a changing world and society. At present, the party finds itself in the sidings and heading nowhere fast.
Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike 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.