by Jessica Asato
I don’t agree that Labour should stop fighting the cuts as Peter Watt wrote last week. But in the furore surrounding his audacious suggestion, most people seemed to miss a sensible point. That the public still blames Labour for overspending and is aware that, had we been elected, would be making cuts too, seems lost on the wider party.
On the doorstep, the overwhelming impression I get is that people are indeed angry about the cuts that are threatening their communities, but don’t believe Labour has yet set out a credible alternative. The question – so what would you do differently – has become as tricky on the knocker as taming a tetchy pitbull.
It is because we have such trouble answering this simple request that the cuts have become our single narrative. We cling to the belief that as people see services falling away they will repent of ever doubting Labour. They’ll flock back to the true righteous path and thank Labour for spending their money on great things. Except, they won’t. No matter how much we shout “international global financial crisis”, the public believes that Labour got the country into a financial mess like they always do and don’t know how to get out of it.
The choice we face is either to create a hullabaloo about cuts for the next four years and how Labour was terribly misunderstood in the hope that someone will hear us, or acknowledge that, however successful our campaigning is, most cuts will unfortunately happen and in 2015 we’ll need to have a plan for governing in a different climate. Because it is clear that if Labour were elected tomorrow, we wouldn’t be able to turn on the money tap again. So if only fighting the cuts isn’t the answer, what is?
Labour was founded to represent the ordinary working person, or as old Clause IV put it “to secure for the workers… the full fruits of their industry”. The idea of just reward for work cannot be reduced to a debate about state transfers of cash to services. When Labour has been successful, it has articulated a vision of how much better life could be, rather than defending how good life was yesterday. We may not like to admit it, but too many people felt that the fruits of their industry – their money – were being spent by the state on the wrong things. This, coupled with a sense that Labour was tired, badly led, and part of the establishment, made the Tories look like an interesting, if not entirely trusted, alternative.
Our alternative has to start from what the public think of us now, not what we think they ought to think about us. So instead of simply saying that we’ll protect services, we should say to people: “we’ll spend your money more wisely on your service priorities and work to get better results than before”. If we want to increase public spending, we should link it to success in growing the economy first.
We should be just as passionate about creating jobs in the private sector as in the public. New Labour failed to see the importance of investing in manufacturing and in creating jobs with dignity outside of the services or financial sectors. If the state is to retain a role, it should be focused here, providing new centres of pride in Britain’s regions and local resilience in the face of global competition. Our offer to small businesspeople should be just as strong as that to teachers and social workers.
Labour should stick up for the little people against companies who rip them off, championing causes such as Stella Creasy’s campaign against legal loan sharking. Wherever it looks like market power is making life hard for people, Labour should be on their side, for example arguing against excessive bank charges and energy companies who increase prices while they make serious profits. If Labour is to truly represent the worries of the squeezed middle, fighting against child benefit cuts cannot surely be the only weapon in our armoury?
Going back to Peter Watt, none of this means that Labour should stop fighting cuts. Stopping forests being sold off and the NHS going down the wrong track while in opposition is our job. But it’s not our only job and won’t win Labour the next election. We’ll continue the petitions, the marches and the anger, but until the public trusts Labour’s economic message, it will all be for nought.
Jessica Asato is a Labour councillor and campaign consultant.