Forget “too far, too fast.” With less than two years until the next election, Labour has chosen its new line of attack: the cost of living crisis. We might have a nascent recovery, but for most people, life keeps getting tougher as prices continue to rise much faster than wages. It’s powerful, but Labour needs to be careful.
Exclusive YouGov polling conducted for Labour Uncut - a centrist Labour blog written by Labour campaigners and former party workers - reveals that almost as many people blame the last Labour government for today’s cost of living crisis as they do the Tories. Some 66% of respondents said they blamed the Labour government either a little or a lot for the problem while 71% blamed the Tories. Even among Labour supporters, 37% blamed the last government. Simply attacking the Tories and saying the words “cost of living crisis” will not be enough for Labour.
Worse still, the polling shows that since the last election over a quarter of 2010 Labour voters (26%) have decided not to vote Labour in 2015. Although the party’s poll rating is buoyed at the moment by new support, the danger is that this could be soft – voting is a habit and a quarter of Labour’s voters are on the way to breaking theirs’. The erosion of Labour’s opinion poll lead over the past year is indicative of what could happen in the run up to the next election.
Out of Labour’s lost 2010 voters, almost one in five are now supporting the Conservatives (18%) and one in 10 (10%) the Lib Dems. Add-in those who’ve switched to UKIP and over a third of these lost voters have shifted to parties to the right of today’s Labour party. In contrast, just one in 20 have moved left to the Greens, with most of the rest (41%) undecided.
The political need is pressing. Labour needs to show wavering supporters and potential switchers how life would be better Ed Miliband in Number 10. Actions, or in this case, policies, speak louder than words.
The Labour leadership might be making heavy weather of demonstrating how things could be different, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Next week at Labour conference, Uncut will launch a book, “Labour’s manifesto uncut: how to win in 2015 and why” that gives a fully costed, centrist vision of what a progressive Labour alternative.
In it, Uncut sets out the five steps Labour need to take for Ed Miliband to become the new occupant in Number 10 on May 8, 2015. First, Ed Miliband needs to become a prime-minister-in-waiting. It is difficult for opposition leaders to define themselves and the trappings of office give prime ministers a natural advantage. But there is one clear route open to opposition leaders to show their leaderly credentials: the manner in which they run their own party.
Ed Miliband must reveal the steel that the public expect in their leaders. Driving through reform of the union link will demonstrate strength in party management, independence from the party’s vested interests and can recast him as prime ministerial material.
Second, Labour must regain its economic credibility. YouGov polling finds a consistent majority consider the government's cuts necessary - a support rating never less than the mid-50s since the poll began at the start of 2011. Equally, the lead that David Cameron and George Osborne enjoy over Ed Miliband and Ed Balls on trust to run the economy in ICM polls has widened to double digits over 2013. This is all in spite of the reality that Osborne is failing to close the deficit.
The broad stokes in which politics is painted mean that, almost no matter what happens to public finances, Osborne will be winning if he can say: "You will borrow more than me. Your excessive borrowing caused this mess.” The key is to stop Osborne winning by rendering this claim irrefutably incorrect. And the only way to do that is unequivocally accept the Tories’ overall spending totals and deficit reduction plan without any general rise in income tax or VAT.
But there’s no point just aping Tory plans. Step three involves identifying how we can fund a radical Labour alternative. This means difficult choices: making deeper cuts in certain areas to free funds to spend elsewhere, and raising specific new revenue from new taxes in others.
For example, the ring fences around education and health should be brought down. They exacerbate the depth of cuts in other public services and inhibit even the small-scale efficiencies which are possible in almost every organisation. This isn’t an easy option, especially for Labour, but it is a tough choice that is backed by the public. In YouGov’s polling for Uncut, 49% of the public agreed with making some cuts to schools and NHS budgets to protect spending in other departments with 37% opposed. Even 37% of Labour supporters and 41% of trade unionists backed this approach.
Labour further needs to demonstrate it’s serious about making savings by reducing the size of government. The Uncut approach calls for the scrapping of five government departments: Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Culture Media and Sport (merged into BIS) and International Development (with core development funding transferred to the FCO).
This would free funds for public priorities and send a clear political message that a Labour government would be ruthless in restricting the excessive growth of government spending. New revenue sources need to be generated too. Taxing the bad, with measures like a new windfall tax on utilities’ excess profits, will generate funds for the good in Labour’s programme.
In all we’ve identified £34bn of funds to finance step four: a distinctive series of commitments that will cut voters’ cost of living and help address the long term challenges the country faces.
The programme includes:
- Free universal, pre-school childcare for working families to reduce barriers to employment and cut family bills (cost:£10.3bn)
- A £50 rise in personal allowances for all tax payers to boost spending (cost: £0.2bn)
- 1m new jobs targeted in the areas that need them most with a revived, regionalised Future Jobs Fund (cost: £8bn)
- 1m new homes in the areas people want them most, with a new house-building programme (cost:£12bn)
- Lower energy bills with £1,000 of energy efficiency improvements for over 3m homes (cost: £3.2bn)
- 8,000 new immigration officers to tackle illegal immigration and rebuild public trust in the integrity of the immigration system (cost: £0.3bn)
This platform would deliver bottom line cash savings to households, proving that Labour is on their side. It would redraw the dividing lines in British politics, moving the political conversation on from debt to Labour’s positive agenda.
But having the right policy alone is not enough. The fifth step to power for Labour is to get serious about delivery. The only thing worse than losing the next election for Labour would be to win, and then fail. The fate of President Hollande in France is salutary lesson on the perils of over-promising and under-delivering.
To address this danger, we call for a delivery audit of manifesto policies so we only commit to what can be implemented. A transition team needs to be established before the election to plan for delivery of Labour’s flagship policies, enabling the new government to be ready to act on day one. And this team should move into government to manage and monitor successful delivery of a programme that will redefine perceptions of Labour for the next generation.
These steps are not easy. True leadership, rebuilding lost economic credibility, painting a new vision for Britain, and ensuring the promises can be delivered; not one of these is a trivial task. Every month that passes time gets tighter and the challenge greater. But if the party acts with urgency and commitment the future can still be won and we will yet see Labour return to power in 2015.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut. “Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why” is launched at the PragRad fringe at Labour conference on Monday