Stephen Boyle assesses the relevance of ‘In The Black Labour’.
With the coalition showing signs of fraying and Vince Cable supposedly so furious at David Cameron’s “veto” that he considered resigning, the odds of the coalition lasting a full term has dropped considerably since Friday.
While Europe is currently dominating the agenda, any election in the near future will inevitably pivot towards the ailing domestic economy. Worryingly, it is on economic ground that Labour most lack credibility with the electorate. Recent polling data from Lord Ashcroft and YouGov shows that despite people’s lack of confidence in the current government, they trust Labour even less to deal with the current economic climate.
Last week saw the publication of In the black Labour which aims to broach this gap. The authors’ proposed remedy is to marry fiscal conservativism with equality of opportunity.
I believe In the Black Labour points the right way for the party. Labour desperately needs a credible alternative to the coalition’s cuts. The five point plan is all well and good, but its emphasis on the “nice” side of dealing with slow or no growth, in terms of taxing bankers, investing in youth education and infrastructure must be coupled with a more open acceptance of the necessity for cuts. At the moment this message is failing to chime with an electorate that still views Labour as culpable for the current mess. In order to re-establish credibility we need to accept that we made mistakes in the past, and unambiguously commit ourselves to acting in a fiscally responsible way in the future.
As to the first point, we need to be more open to the fact that we made mistakes during our time in power. Look to the abolition of the 10p tax rate as one example. In his recent book, Alistair Darling makes clear the political and economic costs this disastrous policy caused. Being candid that we made mistakes in the past, owning them, and speaking about how we have learned lessons would go a long way to re-establish credibility. This should not be couched in the passive voice of “mistakes were made” as if they were agentless, floating in the ether, but rather owned by us. We made mistakes. We have learned from them.
After that message has had time to sink in, we can demonstrate our commitment to acting responsibly. That will mean setting clear and unambiguous targets for the levels of national debt and public expenditure. This means that we will have to look for new ways of achieving social justice with less money, a challenge to which the Fabian’s new year conference admirably rises.
By accepting the severity of the current situation we can build a message that draws on the values Labour epitomises and that are most appealing to voters. The current cuts disproportionately target the lowest paid workers and women. Labour’s message should be that we accept the need for cuts; we know that it is wrong to leave a legacy of debt for the next generation, but we will act in such a way as to spread the burden more fairly across society.
Those viewing the policy debate since Labour lost power must have felt like they were looking through a kaleidoscope as an array of colour-coded publications cascaded by. Blue, Purple and Red have all raised their standards in the ongoing battle to define the next generation of Labour policies. While many of the colours will no doubt fade over time I believe In the Black Labour should be at the heart of what the next Labour administration does.
It is time now to start planning for the reality that austerity will outlive the current parliament and last into the next. A Labour party that does not accept that reality and put it at the fore of their message risks being seen as the greater of two evils in comparison to a resolute and ideologically driven Tory administration.
Stephen Boyle is a member of the Young Fabians.