Labour must look forward, not back, to win in 2015

by Jonathan Todd

Peter Kellner reminded us in his recent hard hitting analysis for Progress that the Tories’ central message in 1992 was that Neil Kinnock was a dangerous man who would lead Britain down the road to ruin. He also recalled that the same trick completely failed in 1997. This was because, he argued, Tony Blair had reassured voters that their jobs, homes, pay and savings would be safe with him.

The “Demon Eyes” poster just seemed daft next to the reassurance that Blair had provided. Labour’s “Demon Eyes” football team, founded in 1997, plays on, but the need for reassurance from Labour has returned. Ed Miliband is, according to the Tories, the menace that Kinnock once posed. He must convince that his sums add up on the big challenges facing the country: the economy, welfare, immigration, public services and the cost of living.

While Miliband must seek to reassure, his capacity to do so is not entirely in his control. It can be argued that the tentative economic recovery of 1992 was a harder context in which for Kinnock to provide reassurance than the more upbeat economy in which Blair campaigned in 1997.

Taking a chance on an opposition party seems less of a risk in a stronger economy. Which is why a tepid recovery by 2015 may be the best backdrop to David Cameron’s “don’t let Labour ruin it” message.

Labour’s opposing message, of course, will be “it’s time for a change”. But why? We might say that it’s time for a change because if too far, too fast cuts had not been implemented then we’d now be better off. Unfortunately, this invites the Tories to remind the country why they deemed the cuts necessary: Labour’s profligacy. And there is evidence that this argument increasingly convinces the public.

As the opposition party, Labour has to argue for change in 2015 but this should be an argument about the change that could be achieved from 2015 under Labour, not the change that might have been achieved had Labour been in office from 2010. This might seem obvious but placing an attack on the depth and speed of the government’s cuts at the centre of our economic argument has us looking back to 2010.

Labour can only win with a positive argument for how things will be better from 2015. Yet not only is our main economic argument backward looking but it is backward looking in a tonally negative way. The implicit message of much of our rhetoric is fearful: the government shrinks and the economy collapses; the immigrants arrive and society implodes.

Of course, we need to critique the self-defeating austerity of the government. Equally, reassurance is needed from Labour on immigration as much as on other issues. However, we need to provide this without undermining the positive argument that Labour will need to win in 2015.

We cannot credibly paint a picture of a better future under Labour if we allow people to believe that we see more government as the only way to greater prosperity or that we believe the resilience of our communities to be seriously imperilled by immigration. We should be loudly celebrating the explosion of microenterprises that has occurred in recent years and that the Woolwich attacks have not allowed Nick Griffin to re-emerge from the irrelevance that the quiet dignity of the British people has consigned him to.

Eddie Izzard is right: Britain is brilliant. To paraphrase the central riff of Joe Biden’s speech to the last Democratic convention, it’s never a safe bet to bet against the British people. However, that’s what our underlying economic message does when it says that only a retrenchment of the state can bring home the bacon. This denies the reality that more Britons than ever before are setting up and running successful businesses. They are doing so in spite of government policy.

Labour can provide a positive, reassuring message by celebrating this entrepreneurship and explaining how we’d enable more of it in government. The stuff of such explanations will be debated at the next Pragmatic Radicalism event on 11 June with Chuka Umunna. Through such events, we must become as fluent in the opportunities of the digital revolution, as we are determined to preserve the best of our high streets. As comfortable, in other words, with individual aspiration and the futures that they look towards as with shared spaces and the traditions that they maintain.

Matthew Taylor’s last annual lecture as chief executive of the RSA argued that there are three major sources of power to achieve change in society: hierarchical authority, social solidarity and individual aspiration. The first two are in crisis. Individual aspiration blossoms in the void that remains. The growth both of microenterprises and social media speak of people eager to be the authors of their own dreams.

One Nation Labour has so far seemed an attempt to rebuild social solidarity. It must also trade in the currency of individual aspiration if it is to provide the positivity and reassurance that Labour government needs.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

Tags: , , , ,

13 Responses to “Labour must look forward, not back, to win in 2015”

  1. Nick says:

    So in other words.

    Lets not talk about the 734 billion a year that we put on the debts.

    Lets not talk about ponzi scams.

  2. McCurry says:

    @Nick, I think you’ve made that point already.

    @Jonathan, There’s no doubt we have to remind people of the lost growth that was caused by the Tory policies. The “Are you better off now” argument is good, the “One nation” one now makes me cringe.

    I agree that reassurance is the best thing Miliband can do.

  3. swatantra says:

    At the end of the day it should be remembered, that Govts lose elections, by their incompetance and loss of confidence; arguments and policies and pledges are rarely in the elecorates minds when they put their crosss on their ballot papers.
    What Ed has to do is win the confidence of the public, by who he is, not necessarily what he says; basically can they trust this man to deliver, if they entrust him with their vote. So far he hasn’t.

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    There is a certain air of complacency – in fact it partly revolves around the repetition of the ‘let’s not be complacent’ mantra. If the economy picks up – and it already appears that things were not quite so bleak last year as the government would have had us believe – the Tories poll-ratings will improve. If it looks like Cameron will win overall, Labour will take a pasting in Scotland because people will not accept the old claims of ‘only Labour can protect you from the Tories’ . Salmond may well lose his referendum – and again that’s not quite so certain as people seem to think – but the gnats will make gains from Labour at the subsequent GE unless Labour has something genuinely worthwhile to offer. If the ‘Yes’ campaign loses on the basis of vague ‘jam tomorrow’ promises that don’t materialise as absolute manifesto commitments, there won’t be losses in Scotland, there will be a slaughter…and of course the gnats are going to sweep up most of the Scottish lib-dem seats anyway.

  5. Clr Ralph baldwin says:

    Which means carry on regardless…..Milliband can certainly with the help of his policy adviser Cruddas “reassure” us that the 2.2 million pounds being spent on Barking and Dagenham Council pensions will somehow benefit the poor, the squeezed middle and not the City lol.
    The Councillors barely broke into a sweat when they implimented the austerity measures, many ofthem thought it was Labour policy (because in reality it is).
    When it came to trying to save services they resisted their own Councillors lol.
    There is only one path and ’tis Conservative. The zombie that is labour merely waves a red flag whilst clumsily following their betters…whilst getting very rich of course….supported by the dull and gullable.

  6. Ex-labour says:

    Labour , or rather the current version of labour, has failed to grasp the fact that our culture and society have changed and people are generally more aspirational and want a better life for themselves and their families. Harking back to an era of large nationalised industries controlled by monolithic trade unions and subsidised by government, where the state made decisions for you and the working class were seen as some massive homogenous group who were all content with their lot is not going to work – full stop.

    The obsession with “social democracy ” and social solidarity is a folly. Miliband is a Marxist intellectual like his father and he no doubt feels that social democracy via tax and redistribution will somehow achieve social solidarity, which is a myth. If people are aspirational they don’t want the Keynesian state taking more of their money and all the poll evidence shows this.

    All this is of course compounded by the lack of policies and any clear message of the direction.

  7. paul barker says:

    So, your argument is that we should vote Labour to allow an explosion of Self-employment, individual enterprise & so on. An explosion thats being squashed by those Statist Libdems & their Tory allies.

  8. John Reid says:

    Neil Kinnock wanted to be liked tried to appeal to groups that Labour hadn’t in the past courted, the police, the city, small businessmen, liberals, Ed has tried to appeal to a group that haven’t voted labour in 12 years union activists and guardian readers, while only loosing a few progress types, will the Tories manage to portray him as kinnock no, 2, but those people in the city, those sceptical of unions or the police who stopped voting Tory in97′ have never gone back to the Tories to see. Ed as a threat to vote Tory to stop labour winning,

  9. Robin Thorpe says:

    @Jonathan; I agree completely with the message that Labour will only win carrying a positive message. The Labour Party must be seen as enabling people to improve their lives, this could include better conditions at work and more time to spend with family and friends (as I think EdM has already said) but as pointed out essentially boils down to people wanting more money. Tax policy does therefore come into it but as reitereated in the comments it is basically down to does Joe Publick trust EdM to lead us into a brighter future?

    @Paul Barker – actually the Tories have consistently been pro-centrist over the last 30 years. They may promote themselves as ‘small-state’ but look at the facts and they take power awway from local institutions and accrue it in Whitehall. They try and shrink the state by cutting public services but then try and manage it all from Whitehall. This has resulted in a weak and ineffectual local government that has contributed to our democratic deficit. The massive expansion of the schools academies programme is the latest case in point. Taking responsibility and power away from local authorities and funding schools directly but hoarding the power in London.

    @Ex-Labour; I don’t think that I have heard any prominent member of the PLP stating that they think industry should be nationalised and a return to state-run monopolies should be executed. This was never the view of the whole Labour Party anyway, true for a time the dominant part of the PLP decided that state-run industry was the path to a socialist democracy, but the social democratic movement is wider than this narrow view. This wider view is what Jonathan Todd is promoting here. The role of government in levelling the playing field so that any group or individual can progress and develop in the 21st Century.

  10. Ex-labour says:

    @Robin Thorpe

    My point on nationalised industries etc is that many of my labour friends see this as the ‘golden age’. I was really using it more as a metaphor for labours quest for social solidarity harking back to this so called golden age.

    My point also is that most labour politicians have a myopic view of social democracy which usually entails use of the tax system to penalise anyone who earns more than they deem acceptable and ‘redistribute’ it. Social democracy can be delivered in many different ways, it’s not always about money. Governments also can and do interfere too much in trying to manipulate circumstances and opportunities almost to a point of social engineering becoming a ‘nanny state’.

    I understand JT’s point and I mainly agree but again my point was that everything I hear from the current PLP is not any wider as you suggest. The continued banker bashing from labour and taking aim at companies who are unacceptable to them does nothing to inspire confidence.

  11. swatantra says:

    I’ve always regarded the Tax System as the The Great Leveller, and an important tool in Social Engineering as well as in the Redistributing Wealth.
    You can actually change peoples behaviour by subtle changes in tax, mostly for the betterment of society as a whole. Of course a few individuals and factions may whinge, because they don’t see the whole picture.

  12. Ex-labour says:


    Here is the classic leftist view. I would point out that the money is NOT the governments money it’s the individuals money who earn it. Social studies have shown that we have an individualistic culture but labour governments, politicians and supporters want other people to fund their pet causes. As normal with leftist views the concept of personal property and personal responsibility are forgotten.

    I sense you view is the same as Milibands and so does the public which is exactly why the polls show that labour are not trusted with OUR money.

  13. Thank you all for these helpful comments.

    I think the tax system inevitably creates incentives, so it may as well incentivise the most socially useful things that it can do, which I am not convinced is what the tax system currently does. We should tax unearned wealth more and earned income less, for example.

    But I take Ex-Labour’s more general point that the left can be over keen to micromanage and dictate. We need to be realistic about the limits of public policy. And not only relaxed about people being the authors of their own dreams but positively encouraging them to be so. Which is why I see something encouraging in the recent explosion of microenterprises.

Leave a Reply