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