Could you take another seven years of this government? If Cameron’s ambition is realised, we are less than a third of the way into his premiership. It’s not quite a riff on Margaret Thatcher’s chilling threat to go “on and on”, but he has stated his intention to remain at Number 10 until 2020. That is – incidentally – the year austerity has (so far) been extended to, after Osborne’s commitment to eradicate the deficit by 2015 was trashed following his well-executed strategy of seeking and destroying anything resembling growth and demand in the economy.
Just think of all the proud achievements they’ve notched up in just 32 months: a six-fold increase in people relying on food banks; the first attempt to deliberately slash the real income of the poor – whether in or out of work – since 1931; a shameless campaign to turn neighbour against neighbour, ranging from the working poor and the unemployed to private and public sector workers; laying the foundations for privatisating the NHS, without a pretence at a mandate; slashing or stripping benefits from sick and disabled people, hundreds of whom subsequently died; and the longest fall in living standards for nearly a century. Yet we stand on the verge of our first triple-dip recession; we remain in the most protracted economic crisis on record; and borrowing continues to surge. And all this in a coalition: Tory wets gave Thatcher more hassle than the Lib Dems give Cameron.
Seven more years of baying Tory MPs waving their order papers in delight at yet another chunk being hacked off the welfare state would be utterly intolerable. A few months ago I met a young woman with a toddler in Hackney, kicked out of her home after benefit cuts and living in sheltered accommodation: welcome to 21st century Britain. All of us who are aware of the injustices being inflicted have a responsibility to fight back, however we can; yelling obscenities at the television won’t really cut it. The futures of millions are at stake, and Cameron’s cabal will hope that their policies will be fundamentally irreversible, just as came to pass with Thatcherism. But given the only realistic way of evicting the Tories is a Labour victory, those horrified by Cameron’s Britain need to start putting pressure on the Labour leadership to offer something that is clearly different.
Some still regard the prospects of Ed Miliband for Prime Minister as – frankly – absurd. Midterm poll leads are meaningless, they argue: Neil Kinnock enjoyed them too, after all, and the electorate gave him a kicking twice. Dan Hodges, a blogger at The Telegraph and a supposedly in-house “lefty” with a brief to attack the left at all costs, last week wrote that “a Conservative win in 2015 isn’t only possible: right now, it’s the most likely outcome.” Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, also penned a fictional account written in 2016 about how Cameron turned it all around and won an absolute majority: by promising an EU referendum; pursuing a vicious campaign over welfare, backed up with a media onslaught on “scroungers”; turning a general election into another vote on Gordon Brown’s economic legacy; and by a Lib Dem rout benefiting the Tories.
But there’s much to suggest we will avoid a 1980s replay. The Tories have been in decline for two generations: no election win since 1955 has given them a higher share of the vote than the time before. That’s also the last time a governing party increased its share of the vote after a full term. The year 2010 was their election to lose, and they lost it. The anti-Tory vote is not split as it was in the 1980s after a large chunk of the Labour right set up the SDP. Indeed, the other potential major party of protest against the Tories is now welded to them. Boundary changes that would, above all, have benefited the Tories are dead. Ukip’s polling surge will subside by election day, but will still undoubtedly cost Cameron seats. Research for the Fabian Society last year found that Lib Dem defectors to Labour would be enough to win without depending on Tory voters. Labour’s biggest threat is not widespread defections to the Tories, but rather the failure of its own uninspired voters to come out and vote.
Expose the lies
This is not to be complacent. Labour must come under pressure, not only to defend the interests of millions of people, but in order to stave off the Tory threat too. The Conservatives – under the guidance of cynical spinner Lyndon Crosby – want to use the so-called “welfare wedge”: that is, to paint Labour as the party of the scroungers. Research published by the TUC last week showed that myths about benefits are endemic, but that the more educated people are about welfare, the less supportive they are of cuts. Trade unions will soon launch a new campaign to expose these lies and distortions: it must also give voice to the real working poor and unemployed being battered by cuts to combat the “scrounger” caricature. This will help defuse the Tory attack and force Labour to defend those suffering with more vigour. We will reduce welfare spending, Labour must be forced to say, by stopping the welfare state subsidising greedy landlords and employers.
Labour must be forced to offer policies that give people hope and something to vote for. An emergency programme for real, secure work – reversing the destruction of full-time work – must be at its heart, founded on a massive council house-building scheme (which would reduce the amount spent on housing benefit) and an industrial strategy, particularly pushing renewable energy jobs. The party’s opposition to austerity is hobbled by its own commitment to cuts: it must come under pressure to hike taxes on the wealthy, as well as clamp down on tax avoidance, not least by supporting the General Anti-Tax Avoidance Principle Bill drawn up by crusading chartered accountant Richard Murphy.
A Tory government at a time of economic crisis is a national tragedy. The damage inflicted on people and communities has already been profound, and – in truth – there is far more suffering to come before Parliament is dissolved in May 2015. But Cameron’s hopes of another term must be destroyed. Don’t just sit back and wait for it to happen: it’s up to all of us to demand an opposition worthy of the name.