The twelve rules of opposition: day three

by Atul Hatwal

Rule 3: Re-draw the dividing lines with ring-fenced, costed policy measures

Following each election, there is a single characteristic common to the public view of the loser, regardless of party or the issues which defined the election.

They represent the undeserving few rather than the honest many.

In 2010, Labour was the party addicted to state spending at tax payers’ expense. In 1997 the Tories were too busy settling their own personal scores to be bothered with the welfare of the country. And in 1979 Labour was a government beholden to the unions not the country.

The central task for any political campaign is to convince voters that the other side is on the wrong side of this divide.

Rule three of opposition involves using ring-fenced, costed policies to re-draw these dividing lines in the opposition’s favour.

It means defining in detail those areas where privileged, special interest minorities, preferably allied to the government, will pay for the measures that benefit the hard-working majority.

This is easier said than done, but all it takes are a limited number of emblematic policies.

For example, in 1997, one of Labour’s five pledges in the election campaign was for a windfall tax on utilities to pay for training and work for the long term young unemployed.

As a policy it tapped into voter anger at the privatised utilities making abnormal profits, an area on which the Major government was vulnerable, and made the connection to tackling youth unemployment, something to which the Tories were seen as indifferent.

The dividing line between helping the young unemployed under Labour versus protecting privileged utilities under the Tories was as clear as it was bright.

In a similar vein, in October 2007 George Osborne announced that the Tories would raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m and abolish stamp duty for first time buyers on homes upto £250,000, funded by a charge on non-domiciled tax payers.

Again, this drew a stark contrast between supporting the interests of the aspirational many, this time under the Tories, versus maintaining the privileged wealth of the lucky few under Labour.

The universal acclaim that greeted this policy announcement was sufficient to scare Gordon Brown off from holding an early election in November 2007 that Labour would likely have won.

The critical feature common across all of these types of measures is absolute clarity on where the revenue is being raised from. Without that, the debate will focus on the source of the funds and how the cost will be met.

There are legions of examples of policies that have been framed to redraw dividing lines, without clear costing that have subsequently become bogged down in a debate over their funding.

In the 2010 election campaign, the Tories successfully made the deficit the defining issue and painted Labour as wasteful lovers of big government. Gordon Brown was a deeply unpopular leader and the Labour party had struggled to develop a robust rebuttal.

Yet still the Tories didn’t win a majority.

In large part this was because the Tories’ reliance on funding their policies through “efficiencies” meant that the spectre of Tory cuts was sufficiently frightening to enough voters to deprive them of a majority.

In parts of northern England, Scotland and Wales, David Cameron’s warm words about change paled when voters’ fears of a return to the worst scorched earth excesses of Mrs.Thatcher’s reign were stirred by Labour, defining the types of services that might be cut.

This wouldn’t have been possible if the Tories had been clear about where the cuts would have fallen.

Given that the Tories completely rewrote their deficit reduction plans after coming into office on the pretext that the situation was worse than they had anticipated, it’s not even as if committing to specific smaller cuts in the election would have been more misleading than their actual campaign.

At the time they did not mention that they were going to hike VAT and were only talking about public sector redundancies of around 40,000. Some way short of the 700,000+ public sector redundancies projected by the office for budget responsibility.

More recently, Labour has fallen into exactly the same trap.

In 2011, Labour’s economic centre-piece, a commitment to an unfunded VAT cut that would pay for itself through growth has been greeted with predictable scepticism by the electorate.

A YouGov poll at the end of November asked the public whether they thought a Labour election victory in 2010 election would have meant the economy would be doing better today.

The public response was unequivocal. The Tories had a 12 point lead, with 25% thinking it would have been better and 37% worse, with 29% thinking it would have been much the same.

The discipline of having to be specific about funding for measures may not be welcomed by politicians who are happiest talking about the sunlit uplands, but it is an essential part of building credible dividing lines.

If the financial details of the policies are sound and cannot be undermined, then the exclusive focus of debate will be the substance of the measure.

This is the discussion all oppositions should want to have. The government will only have two ways to respond.

They can oppose the policy, and define themselves as on the side of the minority. Or they can co-opt the proposal and implement their own version of it.

Gordon Brown’s immediate reaction to George Osborne’s inheritance tax and stamp duty cut was to stumble towards the latter. It gave the Tories momentum and made Labour look weak. Most importantly it showed that Brown could be blown off his course and forced to make policy on the hoof.

In combination with rule two’s general adherence to government tax, spending and borrowing plans, a range of these ring-fenced costed proposals will give the opposition differentiation and a dominating role in the political debate.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.


3 Responses to “The twelve rules of opposition: day three”

  1. Madasafish says:

    Basically what this article says is that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband don’t have a credible economic policy.

    But that’s been obvious for the past 12 months. And it’s evident in the opinion polls.

    the discipline of having to be specific about funding for measures may not be welcomed by politicians

    Time for a new Shadow Chancellor then?

  2. You describe the windfall tax on the utilities as ‘a policy.’ It was a one off raid on their piggy banks, whereas a policy should surely be something that delivers sustainable results. You may just as well call flogging off our gold reserves for a fraction of their present value a policy.

    One sustainable policy was increasing north sea oil taxes. That caused a drag on investment in oil and gas exploration there for years. Then there was the abolition of the 0% rate of corporation tax for profits under £10K and marginal relief for profits between £50 and £300K in 2005, which has since crucified small and medium size business cash flows, resulting in a lost investment, jobs and the economic activity that went with all that.

    Finally there is the question as to why the Tories did not win an outright victory. Well the answer probably lies in ‘Cleggmania.’ Both Labour and the Tories were shown to have crooks fiddling the public purse The anger of the voters at high taxation and the terrible state the country had been brought to was both reinforced and diverted by this. If you compare votes cast in 1979 to votes cast in 2010 you see that both Tory and Labour lost almost three million each while the Lib – Dems gained almost three million.

    This is not likely to be the case next time.

  3. Nick says:

    Still not taking on board the 7,000 bn of debt (linked to inflation)

    Even that doesn’t take into account bailing out your client state who haven’t saved in their retirement.

    For example, what about those people in Westminster who are on benefits of 170K a year? That’s without any incapacity benefit. Are they going to be bailed out in their retirement from not working? Who is going to pay? Can they afford to pay?

    It’s another 13,000 bn on top.

    That’s out of an ‘income’ of 550 bn a year. You can’t meet those debts/spending commitments. So they won’t be paid, particularly because the young might actually want something for their taxation, such as schooling, roads, etc.

    It means defining in detail those areas where privileged, special interest minorities, preferably allied to the government, will pay for the measures that benefit the hard-working majority.

    So justify who gets to pay the 170K a year that you were handing out to some feckless fecund person in Westminster. Why should someone on minimum wage pay 2,500 a year in employment taxes for that person to live a privilidged lifestyle of leisure.

    Now for your milk cows. What happens when the cow decides not to be milked? You’re screwed. The cow leaves the country. It incorporates elsewhere in Europe or the far east. Now you’ve a real problem. The banking crisis is an example. Tax revenues plummeted overnight and like the emperor with now clothes you carried on naked into the abyss.

    However, you analysis of the consequences is correct. It’s dire.

    With no money, and huge debts, its massive cuts in government spending. Without the corresponding tax cuts to boost the economy, particularly taxes on investments, it’s tipped. However, you designed it. Its the BBB (Brown Blair and Ball’s legacy). It’s going to be the credit rating as well.

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