We can’t afford the luxury of leaving the page blank for much longer

by Tom Harris

Ed Miliband was predictably mocked by the Tory benches after his “blank piece of paper” initiative was leaked.

Yet even those government MPs who were oh-so-cleverly holding up their blank order papers for the TV cameras knew that opposition parties, in the immediate aftermath of an election defeat, always – always – review their policy from scratch. The Tories did it in 2005, and in 2001 and in 1997. I seem to remember a perpetual policy review throughout the 80s and into the 90s (remember “Labour Listens”)?

The fact is that the 2010 manifesto failed. It was rejected. It is now deceased, an ex-manifesto. It has joined the Choir Eternal in manifesto heaven. And we will need a brand new one before 2015.

The danger for Ed and our party is that the current political and economic climate doesn’t allow us the relaxed timetable that Cameron enjoyed after his party’s third successive defeat. All the future prime minister had to worry about in those days was how to “detoxify” his party’s brand and capitalise on the inevitable imminent succession of Brown to replace the thrice-victorious Blair. It was all about strategy, message, image.

In 2011, events are overtaking Labour’s internal policy review, if not Labour itself. The government (there really isn’t any need to say “Tory-led”; we know what it is) is sailing full steam ahead into controversial waters: cuts in local government budgets, radical changes to the NHS and schools, welfare reforms.

Ed has already told us in explicit terms that he won’t oppose every cut, but so far that message has been blunted to the point of meaninglessness. Opposition to the cuts – all the cuts – is growing. Labour MPs are regularly invited to join rallies, offer moral support to those defending every service, whether in the local Jobcentre Plus or the local library. And why shouldn’t they? After all, it’s Labour’s traditional core support which is suffering most as a result of the “new austerity”.

But what happens when that blank piece of paper finally starts to get filled in? Eighteen months or two years down the line, after many of the battles have been fought and the battle lines clearly drawn, what room will Ed have to develop a new vision with which to lead Labour to victory?

What specific spending cuts will he say, in retrospect, were justified after all? Which sit-ins, petitions, letter-writing campaigns and demos will he decree to have been ill-judged after those battles have been fought and lost/won?

What if Ed and his shadow chancellor conclude (as I hope they do) that the state we bequeathed to our successors in government was, after all, too big, too intrusive, too inefficient? How do we sell that message to our own supporters, let alone the wider country, without inviting a wave of disillusionment and anger at the leadership’s retrospective withdrawal of support from grassroots campaigns?

The alternative would be for the party to conclude that the state was, in 2010, the ideal size, or perhaps too small; that public spending in the longer term should be higher, not smaller.

Many in the party would welcome such a conclusion, despite the barriers this would place in the way of Labour’s early return to government.

But however Ed and Ed decide to fill that blank page, we should not allow our options, through our passivity, to be curtailed or limited by the expectations of a leaderless anti-cuts movement.

We don’t need to know the precise directions on the route we will take, but we should at least be told which country the destination is located. We cannot afford the luxury of allowing that blank page to stay blank much longer.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South.

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11 Responses to “We can’t afford the luxury of leaving the page blank for much longer”

  1. Will says:

    Great article and true. I’m not a politician or a member of a party. My income isn’t big (£22k) and I have 4 children. But I couldn’t vote Labour last time. It would probably have been in my personal interest but it felt like the party was in denial. It still feels like that. I don’t want to be told what to do in every aspect of my life, I want to be trusted to make decisions; I hated fighting the bureaucracy and the jobs-worth mentality that I kept facing. I understand that I won’t be heard. I understand that. I understand that many people here will lay into you for saying all of this (and me for supporting you). I don’t know what Labour stands for. I have voted Labour in the past I really can’t see it happening again for a long time.

  2. There is very little of any substance in this article. But does anyone honestly think that people on low and middle incomes, whose wages have stagnated, who have seen those at the top pull even further away, and who – after being failed by neo-liberal economics – are now being expected to pay for those failings, REALLY care whether the state got “too big”?

    Anyone who thinks that’s why Labour lost in 2010 or lost 5 million votes since 97 needs their head examining!

  3. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Hands up anybody who has ever met an ordinary floating or loyal Labour vote who told them they were concerned about the size of the state – whether too large or too small.

    I’ve heard from people concerned about Iraq, jobs, taxes, education, whether they can afford to retire, MRSA, bins not being emptied, reform of libel law, the need for less immigration, the need for more immigration, secondary picketing, Gordon Brown and why I wasn’t wearing a tie. And a few other concerns still less explicable.

    I’ve never heard anybody complain about the size of the state, except for a few households where we had bad contact history and hadn’t realised they’d been voting Tory every single election for the past three decades. And I really don’t think we need to worry about the votes of people who think that Somalia is suffused by state bureaucracy.

    Takee that away and all we’re left is Tom Harris’ fear that he’ll have to think for himself when responding to his constituents. Which is certainly a big challenge for the Labour Party to confront.

  4. william says:

    The lost 5 million votes(News from Nowhere has a finger on the pulse).Pre 1997,Labour had gone to great lengths to reassure the electorate of its fiscal conservatism,and was duly reelected.We all know what happened next(the schoolboy in the sweetshop), and it was only due to the ineptitude of the tories(eg. we will share the proceeds of growth) that it took until 2010 for the electorate to punish our fiscal incompetence.The more cuts made by this government the better, (we do not need to say anything), it will just cause Unpopularity.The trick is to persuade the electorate in 2014 of a refound fiscal competence and a genuine intention to keep the state at no more of 40 percent of GDP, with a resultant lower level of taxation for EM’s newfound middle Britain,who decide who wins the next election.Nobody understands the Big Society, but 71 percent voted against Brown’s Big State.

  5. The blank piece of paper needs to be filled in a damn sight sooner than 2015. The Labour Party needs a platform it can move forward with by no later than the London Mayoral and Greater London Authority Elections in May 2012. Governments always have Mid-Term Blues, a dip in popularity, the current Tory-led government is already unpopular, by the time of these Elections, which can more or less be seen as the official start of the Mid-Term Labour needs to be starting the 2015 Election Campaign.

    As for cuts. I am 43 years old, I can remember Denis Healy introducing the first round of government cut in 1976, after he went cap in hand to the IMF, then the bone deep cuts of the Thatcher Year, Gordon Brown’s “Prudence” during the last Labour Government and now Gideon’s Slash and Burn under this mongrel administration. By the time of the next General Election, both Local and National Government will have been making cuts and “efficiency savings” for nearly four decades. There is nothing left to cut. The current Tory-Led Government is butchering what is left of the Public Sector. By the time of the next Labour Government it will not be a question of working out what were the right cuts, it will be a wholesale replacement of everything that is lost with something new and better. Fore instance, the library services that people are trying to protect now will be history, and brand new library services will have to be created from the floor up. Only central government will be able to do this, because only central government will have the power to set up new local authorities and have the power to send the parasitic private enterprises that cherry pick the most profitable services packing. The only Central Government that would do this is a Labour Government, and the only way to get the people to trust Labour to do this is by having a solid argument that the voters have known and wanted since 2012. They will know that Labour will not cut, because cuts are old fashioned an counter-productive, they will know that Labour will Improve and Build on what has gone before, because by 2015 they will know that Labour has had a strong and well thought out Manifesto for years.

  6. Tacitus says:

    I think writers on this forum have been more than generous. My own position I fear is far more militant (is that word still allowed in Labour circles?). Ed has largely failed at PMQs, he has been unsuccessful in drawing in media support for his ‘plans and he has discovered the absence of an instant love affair between himself and teh general public.

    Even worse, large numbers of trade union members voted for a leader they thought would be radical and different. What they got was “same ole, same ole”.

    As for teh Shadow Cabinet, well like shadows they are vague and intangible. Nobody outside the Labour Party knows who they are and what they believe in.

    If we are going to win this, or any future elections we will need to do much, much better. At the moment I fear the public would not vote for us to rule TellyTubby land, much less this country

  7. William, I understand the Big (Profits for our Friends in the Private Sector) Society perfectly well. It is another name for the Tories, but they carefully avoid calling it by its real name, only using the short-hand “Big Society”. We must all work to expose the Big (Profits for our Friends in the Private Sector) Society for what it really is, more money for the mega-rich friends of the Conservative Party at the expense of everyone else.

  8. william says:

    john campbell Rees,the issue is not the Big Society,but the electorate’s rejection of the Big State.Alternatively,we could opt for 15 years or so in opposition…

  9. Robin Thorpe says:

    I know that I am coming to this particular debate quite late but my point would be this; a strong public domain is a pre-requisite of a properly functioning market economy. For only the public domain can provide the trust necessary for a free-market economy to run prosperously for both buyers and sellers. The post-war Labour government decided that this public domain should be administered on a national basis – the big state (it is worth pointing out that the big state is not the only viable socialist method of administering the public domain). Since the 1970’s various administrations have centralised power in order to seek greater control. Quite a few of the powers now centralised that the current Tories bemoan as top-down bureaucracy were taken away from local authority by Thatcher – not Blair.
    Perhaps the Labour approach should be on explaining the purpose of the public realm and identifying the needs and uses of public service.

  10. Oliver says:

    regarding the point about the state being “too big, too intrusive, too inefficient”. Firstly, they’re all very different things and need addressing separately. I’ll add my name to the list of other commentators curious as whether people in general, or specifically Labour voters, thought the state was “too big”. I’d argue they didn’t and they didn’t really think in those terms: all people want are good accessible services and for someone to have some kind of accountability when those services aren’t as good as they’d like.

    Pushed further, there might be another response, particularly from those employed by ‘the state’. That even if was too big, where were state employees meant to get jobs? Despite what Tory trolls all over the net have claimed, despite what Duncan Smith and other fruit loops think, the private sector has never rode in on a white horse to save the day – certainly not in many of the towns and cities that were decimated in the 1980s. These people have got the argument the wrong way around: in various cities the dependency on state employment (not to mention benefits) happened because the private sector failed – the private sector didn’t fail because the public sector/ the state ‘muscled them out’ in some way.

    Secondly, you’re closer to the mark with ‘too intrusive’. Far, far more people pondered on ‘Big Brother’ rather than ‘big state’ over the last decade. I was one of them. I.D. cards in particular, the black box congestion measures outlined for Manchester etc. were steps too far. Worse, they were sold to us on lies. The I.D. card and subsequent databases would have never worked in the way they were presented and were ridiculous as an anti-terrorist measure.

    As for filling in the blank sheet – it all depends on how radical Ed wants to be. There are alternative for much of what’s going on: land tax, tax loopholes for high earners etc.

    Also, the elephant in the room that’s going to cause endless nosebleeds and black eyes due to walking into it and not addressing it: immigration. If we can’t support the people already here – which is surely the bottom line of the defecit and the debt – then how can we genuinely afford. Labour has to bite the bullet and stop framing this as a race or xenophobia issue and just as a numbers issue (which it is too many, many people) and accept that its traditional voter base – the working classes (by which I mean people earning considerably smaller sums than are often bandied about on this site) are the ones hit hardest by immigration in every way: housing, jobs, services.

  11. William, we are both agreed that the way the Big State functioned was not fit for purpose, and the last Labour Government should share their part of blame for that, but so should every government since 1945, the system has had a long time to grow big and ugly.

    However, I strongly believe that the mutually based, volunteer run and co-operatively financed utopia that David Cameron waxes lyrical about is the polar opposite of what he and his Tory-Led Government are creating, and it is the duty of the Labour Party to spell this out at every opertunity and also to quickly develop an alternative strategy that it can sell to the electorate long before the next General Election.

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