Peter Hain: Labour knows the underdog can win

John Major edged ahead against a confident opposition in 1992. And this government can hold on to power too, if it listen to voters

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:52

In the past four weeks I have met a great many local Labour Party members at a series of fight-back meetings. I have been asking everyone a simple question: do we want to win? By which I mean, do we really, really want our Labour government back in power?

If not, we might as well scrap this week's party conference and let David Cameron take over without a fight. That's what will happen if we all keep behaving as we have been for too long – Labour ministers and MPs not fighting back; some senior Labour and trade union colleagues predicting a Tory government; party members sullen and inactive; all of us continuing to behave as if a Tory win is inevitable.

The opinion polls have killed us off already. The media have written us out, some licking their lips at their Tory mates being back in power again. Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat leaders are preparing to work with the Tories.

But, not a single vote has been cast yet. And the Tories have not been winning with the kind of huge leads Labour achieved before 1997. On 4 June they won Wales – shockingly – with the support of only six out of every hundred people registered to vote. Labour voters have simply stayed at home – in their millions. So, if Labour can get under the radar – underneath the ferocious media attack on us – and speak to voters directly, we can still beat them.

My guess is that in this general election campaign, more than any I can remember, direct contact with voters on the doorstep or the telephone will be absolutely critical. I think it will be decided at the very last moment. If we do our job as a Labour leadership, if our supporters do their jobs at the grass roots, whatever the polls say, when people get into the privacy of the polling booth, then I think the next election will be like that of 1992. Then, everyone expected John Major's Conservative government to lose, but in the end voters considered the Opposition too much of a risk. I think that next time, too, voters might set aside their dissatisfaction with their government and ask themselves if they really, really trust the Tories with their jobs, their mortgages, their families, their pensions.

Everyone is worried about debt, but do they trust the Tories to manage the crisis when their policies of savage cuts would make debt and unemployment worse? Everyone would prefer that the recession hadn't driven up government borrowing, but everyone also knows if we were not investing now the economy would be much, much worse.

David Cameron and George Osborne positively relish the chance to make cuts, to exploit this global crisis to do what even Thatcher could not do – to slash and burn local government; to introduce regional benefit levels, meaning lower pensions, disability and unemployment payments for low-income areas like Wales. Also in Wales, they propose ending free prescriptions, abolishing free bus travel for pensioners and abolishing European funding programmes. And now the Lib Dems are trying to out-Tory the Tories!

Over recent months the soft Cameron mask has slipped and the real Tories have emerged. Daniel Hannan, an MEP, revealed their true colours when he asked: "You would be better off being ill in America than in Britain." Why on earth does he think President Obama is fighting to reform a health system that leaves nearly 50 million Americans without any health protection whatsoever?

On Europe, David Cameron has now joined up with the far-right leaders. One says homosexuality is a disease, while another called for global "chemotherapy" against Muslims. One described climate change as "a global myth". Another said the Holocaust was a myth. Yet another celebrated his city's local connection to Hitler's notorious SS.

What encourages me is that the vast majority of the British people share the same Labour values of caring, community, solidarity, social justice, equality, fairness, liberty, democracy. It was those values that brought me into politics through the anti-apartheid struggle – opposed by the Tories. The same values which motivated the great Nelson Mandela – denounced as a "terrorist" by the Tories. The same values of the trade unionists who banded together to protect working people – opposed by the Tories. The values of the Chartists who struggled for working people to get the vote – opposed by the Tories. The values of the Suffragettes who fought for women to get the vote – opposed by the Tories. And, yes, the values of mutual care and mutual support that inspired that great Welsh Labour leader Nye Bevan to create the NHS – also opposed by the Tories.

Labour values stand for fair taxation. Tory values will reward 3,000 of the very richest people in Britain with inheritance tax cuts of £200,000 each, while nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers face the sack. That's the threat we face, that's what we must all stand up and fight against.

I'm proud of what we have achieved in 13 years of Labour investment. In schools and hospitals, to hand over everything we have achieved – minimum wage, tax credits, massive public spending increases, trebling our overseas aid budget, doubling the Welsh budget, devolution for Wales, the Northern Ireland settlement – hundreds and hundreds of concrete Labour achievements, absolutely everything, to those callous, right-wing Tories is unthinkable.

Yes, we have made mistakes; everyone makes mistakes. But nobody can take away the fact that, even after the global financial crisis, after all the problems people face, there are still 2.4 million more jobs in Britain than there were under the Tories. There are still over 800,000 more public sector workers, especially doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, to ensure waiting times for hospital operations are now down from years to weeks, that school standards are up, and crime is down.

We should be much more confident about our policies. This should be our era. After the terrible failures of financial capitalism, this is an era for active not passive government, an era for hands-on not hands-off government, for getting stuck in and helping people, not leaving them on their own, prey to the banking blizzards. We must be proud of our achievements and our socialist heritage. And let's do absolutely everything in our power to stop the Tories wrecking Britain again.

Peter Hain is Secretary of State for Wales

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