1st April 2016
Being Honest: Welfare, The Economy and Immigration
Many of my friends and family think I am a political anorak. When I tell them there are many worse they look at me in disbelief. The reality is that I do not follow every twist and turn of the political fortunes but have firm beliefs about the importance of social justice, equality and opportunity for all that have always drawn me to the Labour Party. Societies which are fair and more equal are better. If you don’t believe this I would suggest you give The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Allen Lane 2009) a read. Perhaps the subject of another blog on another day.
So the Tories are in meltdown. They fight like rats in a sack. IDS has moved from quiet man to yesterday’s man and Osborne descends like a spent rocket on November 5th. I bet Corbynistas cannot believe their luck. Just a few well chosen words that plunge the knife between the shoulder blades and some well worded press releases and the 2020 General Election is in the bag. Those that have always chosen to believe that if the radical left just hang in there one day the Tories will fail and they will capitalise may actually now be believing their own propaganda.
I have two words for such believers: DREAM ON!
The next General Election is over 4 years away and we are nowhere like being in an election environment. The media is mostly focusing on the travails of the Tories while Labour goes unnoticed and without scrutiny. The mess created by Osborne’s too clever by far Budget is a great opportunity for Labour to lay out its stall as a viable alternative, but how should it do this?
There are no votes to be had by laying out a description of the country most voters do not recognise and then presenting a set of policies for solving problems voters either do not see or at best do not prioritise. Most conversations I have that could be described as political tend to focus on jobs, career prospects, family, opportunities for our children, security in old age, healthcare and life in our local community.
I despair at some of the policy (I use the word lightly) announcements that Labour have uttered in recent months. Trident review, the administration of the Falklands, media ownership rules, beer and sandwiches with trades unions in 10 Downing Street, tea with terrorist groups, decriminalising the sex trade etc etc. I have news for Jeremy Corbyn – voters are more concerned about the pot holes in the roads around where they live than in Trident. That’s not because voters are narrow minded and uninformed; it’s because the will of voters on this issue was settled 30 years ago and has changed little since.
So Labour needs to develop a positive narrative of a better future for all, based around matters which are important to voters in 2016. Quite simply Labour needs to be saying to voters “we know what your concerns are, we recognise your aspiration for a better life for yourself and your family and we will deliver it”.
The mood music should also recognise that if Labour is the true Party of equality it should appeal to all voters. There should be no “no go areas”. Everybody should be given a reason for considering Labour.
Labour’s priority must be re-establish credibility when it comes to running the economy. A few well-chosen and understandable fiscal rules, clarity on how spending commitments will be met, no magic money trees watered by the notion that there are vast amounts of tax out there that HMRC somehow forget to collect and nothing wider than a cigarette paper between shadow chancellor and leader should do the trick. No wild spending commitments that voters would not recognise as a priority. Is the abolition of tuition fees the biggest challenge facing the country? What about the elimination of poverty, personal care in old age or the rebuilding of Sure Start so that all children can have a good start to life? Labour also needs to take further the lifting of the tax burden on the low paid.
While tighter rules may be necessary to control the actions of large multinational corporations in regard to tax avoidance, anti-competitive behaviour and workers’ rights, Labour needs to balance this by embracing wealth creation and in particular, young up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the new digital age industries. Without wealth creation the tax take diminishes and with it Labour’s cherished equality and opportunity for all dreams.
Labour is the Party of work. It was created as such and needs to escape from the Tory-imposed yoke of the party of welfare. The effort being wasted on a navel-gazing review of Trident would be better used in understanding the modern world of work in the digital age and how secure, rewarding jobs can be created and aspiration rewarded. Workers no longer stride off to the mine, mill or factory and belong to one of the mighty industrial trades unions. More and more workers are self employed or work for small employers and do not belong to (or see the necessity for) a union. Labour needs to be doing some thinking around creating secure and rewarding jobs, how to protect them and give workers rights without stifling opportunity or creativity.
Why don’t we do some left field thinking about replacing the adversarial system of industrial relations with something fit for the 21st century? Is it really necessary for London Transport staff to threaten, or actually go on strike every time any change is proposed? How about a legal right for staff to elect a representative on to Boards of Directors?
Labour is the Party of work, not welfare. It needs to make clear that the purpose of the social security system is to give support to those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own and help them back to work. We should also be clear that if people cannot work because of ill-health or disability they can live in dignity. Perhaps the sterile argument around how much income is necessary to achieve this could be eliminated by social security rates and uplifts being determined independently of government as is currently the case for pay rises for some public sector workers. Labour needs to be honest with itself and recognise that a lot of the pressure to change the social security system because it was seen to be too generous came from those who would normally be natural Labour voters.
Labour needs to embrace this and do some thinking around how it can be achieved. If people in local communities want to run some of their own services why should they not be allowed to do so? There should not be a “one size fits all” approach to devolution. Let local communities decide for themselves. For some it could be a directly elected mayor, for others parent groups running schools, local authorities providing utilities or companies being set up by local authorities or groups of interested citizens to provide affordable housing, high speed internet, transport services, libraries etc. Let Labour become the owner of devolution with the Party coming forward with new and imaginative ideas.
Keep Trident and commit 2% of GDP to defence. Anything less will be seen as a risk to national security and unpatriotic.
After welfare the second area for some honesty is immigration. Labour needs to openly recognise voters concerns about immigration and its effects on local services and jobs. There needs to be fair, firm rules and controls and support for local communities as they change.
It is part of being British to want to own your home. Nearly everybody aspires to it. Labour should embrace this and link it with the devolution agenda. Labour should steal from the Tories the label of party of home ownership and use the power of the private and charity sectors to develop ideas for making the home ownership dream a reality for more and more people.
While Tories tour the television studios either singing each others’ praises, or stabbing each other in the back depending on personal ambition, Labour should be busy listening to voters and in particular the news that some do not want to hear about Labour’s current stance on immigration, welfare and national defence. We should be writing mood music that plays to voters backed with policy ideas that turn the mood into reality. Let’s hear voters say again that Labour speaks to me and my concerns.
Finally, I recall during the 2012 London Olympics somebody worked out the percentage of medals won by competitors who had attended private schools compared to those who had attended state schools. Having seen Eton College’s rowing lake I was not surprised that overwhelmingly medals were won by those who had enjoyed the privileges and resources of a private education. Just imagine how many medals we would have won if every child had access to similar facilities? Think how great our nation would be, how more equal and fair it would be if that were extended to general education, training and thus into the world of work? That should be Labour’s great challenge.
By Keith Nieland