Honesty, forensic scrutiny and playing the long game

by Angharad Williams

The comprehensive spending review has changed Britain forever. George’s masochistic medicine will prove a bitter pill to swallow. The side-effects may be dramatic: social convulsions, outbreaks of crime and racially charged rioting, feelings of worthlessness and a loss of aspiration.

For the new generation which learnt the human consequences of hard-headed Thatcherism mainly from Brassed Off and The Full Monty, it was the beginning of a practical study in the DNA of the nasty party. It should not have surprised us that a new generation of Conservatives, raised on a rich diet of small state and strong market thinking callously cheered announcements that will devastate lives.

The worst thing about the coming cuts is the sense of powerlessness. We may win the odd skirmish, but the real battle is set for May 2015. Those who decry the “failure” of Labour’s 13 years in power will need to screw their heads back on.

The fairly cathartic process of internal elections was carried out while ignoring the Tory forces massing on the borders of our constituencies. The aftermath in London has been particularly messy, with Ken choosing indulgently to campaign against Labour, which will provide succour to the Tories in the run up to the 2012 Mayoral elections.

The longer run-in is to 2015 and our approach must be much more astute. We know what will not work. The oppose-at-all-costs rallying call of the hard left appeals to a minority but badly serves our cause.

In an age where political messaging needs to be wrapped up in one sentence, the financial crisis and the ongoing inability of rudderless capitalism to deliver stable growth, a gender balanced society or equitable distribution of opportunity does not lend itself to the soundbite. Though tackling and taxing the bankers does have popular traction.

We cannot continue to ignore economics. New Labour accepted that markets are a key driver of growth, competition encourages innovation, public spending should always be value for money. There is no contradiction in being pro-business and pro-labour, or in backing active government while arguing that the state should be as small and lean as possible.

Only by sticking to these principles can we begin to oppose the ideology of unfettered capitalism in a way that builds support at the ballot box as well as on demos. It then allows us to talk about regulating markets to bring benefits beyond shareholders, investing in socially-owned capital and co-operative interests (and even some measures of nationalisation).

We can start by getting our lines straight on cuts. The Tory-Lib Dem government’s strategy was not inevitable. They employ a statistical sleight of hand to paint a picture of Labour’s recklessness that belies hundreds of new schools and hospitals nationwide. We should distinguish between debt and deficit. We need to put debt in a historical perspective. We need to identify how much of our debt is tied up in the package that rescued the banks and we need to be honest about why we ran the deficit as well as how we would run it down in a measured manner.

Only then can we show the government’s folly in destroying people’s jobs, homes and dreams in the name of economic discipline. We will also be better placed to resist the inevitable phase two of the Tories’ ideological assault, when they seek to fill the gaps in provision created by cuts to public services with contracts for big business.

Once our economic narrative is re-established, we can reach out to voters. Put bluntly, most of us who move in Westminster circles may find money a touch tighter in the coming years but we don’t face unemployment, fewer options for re-skilling and a family to feed – all with less state help than for a generation. This will mean that our local parties and local supporters become more important than ever. We can try, but can’t expect to communicate the anguish of communities as articulately as their own voices. The movement for change set up by David Miliband and the out-of-London focus of Andy Burnham may both yet prove a valuable legacy.

As well as tapping into the talents of a growing membership, we need to wise up to the fact that we may one day need to reach out to Liberal Democrat politicians as well as voters. Of course, the coming catastrophe could never have happened without the Liberal Democrats, but every Liberal they see should remember that the public is jaded by the partisan nature of politics and appreciates efforts to work together on issues of national importance.

Turning the tide in our favour won’t be done by shouting, screaming or even striking, but by playing the long game – forensically dismantling
the detail of the government’s policies and listening and talking to people about their lives and how we can help to improve them. We need more than focus groups and polling so often used to triangulate policies. We need a two-way conversation which feeds into policymaking.

Labour activists are rightly angry about the harm being done by the Tory-Lib Dem governmentut. But there is no alternative to painstaking work to rebuild our movement, win allies, listen to and engage with people. That is how we will win the trust of the people in 2015.

Angharad Williams is a pseudonym.

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3 Responses to “Honesty, forensic scrutiny and playing the long game”

  1. William says:

    To win the trust of the people in 2015, we need to promise not to run the economy with only one balanced budget in 13 years, a la Gordon brown.

  2. AnneJGP says:

    It would be as well to take care when speaking of the side-effects you anticipate. You do not want to associate Labour with inciting the very behaviour you fear. That association had a lot to do with the Conservatives winning 3 elections last time.

    You make some good suggestions. On the “hundreds of new schools and hospitals nationwide”, for example, Labour needs to identify a sound-bite to overcome the impression that they haven’t yet been paid for. That’s the sleight of hand that makes people believe the investment was simply more debt for future tax-payers.

    If I might say so, the worst thing about the cuts is that people who are already struggling will find life becomes even harder. That sense of powerlessness is only because those of you in Westminster circles have been used to being in power. The little people in the rest of the country are always powerless, whatever the government, and we don’t like it either.

  3. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Sorry, but Labour did fail in office. That’s not to say that they did nothing right – I think nothing of the sort – but we have to accept that it was a wasted opportunity.

    How do we know this? Because if we’d taken the chance, then Cameron wouldn’t be able to run cuts like this past the country. Labour changed Britain for the better, but the cuts have reversed about 90% of that already.

    So yes, we need a forensic attack on the cuts, not a loud one. But equally importantly, we need a plan to change Britain such that next time we lose – and we will lose, it’s in the nature of British politics that no party holds power forever – the Tories won’t just cut away pretty much every hard fought accomplishment of the previous government.

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