For Labour, the “cost of living” debate is dead

by Alex Chalmers

A month ago, the next election was going to be decided by “the cost of living crisis”; the electorate would see through the economic growth figures, feel the pinch, and elevate Ed Miliband, scourge of the energy fat-cats, to Downing Street. The government’s response to the energy price freeze was inconsistent and unintelligible, the public seemed to love the policy, and for a moment, the opposition looked like it had a leader. Yet within a few weeks, Labour’s poll resurgence had turned into full-on retreat. Today, YouGov has Labour’s lead down to 2 points.

So what went wrong? On a very simplistic level, elections are not won or lost on one policy. An idea, even a popular one, cannot hold media or public attention for more than a fairly short period of time. Unless it is part of a broader theme or narrative, and is followed by a series of other well-timed announcements, it will quickly become buried under a tide of other news stories. Labour cannot agree on one policy and prepare to collect the keys to Number 10. The public liked the sound of it, some other things happened, and then they moved on. If Miliband truly wishes to define the next election in terms of the cost of living, then he has to say a lot more about it.

Unfortunately, this is something of a recurring theme. At the height of the NHS reorganisation fiasco, the next election was going to be about that, but once the reforms started to be implemented, the party suddenly quietened down. A limp half-hearted campaign based on the Twitter hashtag #dropthebill unsurprisingly made little impact. Retweeting to the converted does not an election win. Nothing was made of the collapsing patient satisfaction ratings, whilst the attempts to focus on staffing levels were wrought with statistical errors and easily batted away by the government. The NHS is now in the headlines again, but Labour appears to be making no effort to communicate its message. In the days of New Labour, the media operation would have been ruthlessly hammering five key pledges home, trying to make sure the issue caught the public imagination. Ed Miliband’s “Zen-like calm” interspersed with cries of, “same old Tories” is simply no substitute.

The party’s strategy of choosing a key issue and promptly forgetting it is going to cost it dear come the next election. For the vast majority of its term in office, the coalition has managed to frame the main debates. It has managed to paint Labour as the public spending bingers and the friends of the scroungers.

Only 21% of people think the economy would be better off if Labour were in power; that means around a third of 2010 Labour voters lack faith in the party, suggesting that Labour has much further to go before swing voters will start to listen. The Conservatives will enter the next election, with greater financial leverage and the majority of the British press on their side, able to point to respectable economic growth and warn of the dangers of changing horses midstream. Labour does not seem to have an economic alternative. If I was out campaigning and someone asked me where Labour would make savings, I would have no answer. I would have to pretend we could somehow completely pay for our few promises through a bankers’ bonus and mansion tax, that our policy on apprenticeships was not illegal under EU law, and that we could guarantee every single young person a job, without being entirely sure as to how. As the election draws closer, the excuse that Labour cannot possibly know what situation it would inherit rings increasingly hollow.

The next election, whether the party likes it or not, will revolve around economic vision and competence. The cost of living crisis could have been a part of that debate, but Labour allowed it to sink beneath the waves. Labour could well try and revive it, after all, Miliband is seen as more in touch than David Cameron (albeit still quite out of-touch), and it could play to the party’s advantage if used properly. A clear raft of measures that would increase the amount of money in people’s pockets, combined with a progressive way to reduce the deficit would play well. At the moment, Labour has neither. With the special conference on the union link approaching, the party, if anything, is about to become even more insular, increasing the chances of us waking up on the morning of 8 May 2015 to a bad hangover and a Tory majority. Right now, the cost of living debate is dead, and we have killed it.

Alex Chalmers is a Young Labour activist, living in Reading


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7 Responses to “For Labour, the “cost of living” debate is dead”

  1. Ex Labour says:

    A very sensible and insightful article in general. However just a point.

    You say, “It has managed to paint Labour as the public spending bingers and the friends of the scroungers”. Sorry but I’m afraid Labour itself has done this when in power with a massive escalation in welfare costs and continuously squeezing those in work to pay for them. Miliband and Labour in general have done nothing to dispel the belief of the public, and worse still for Labour is that welfare cuts are popular with Labour voters.

    Perhaps Labour are taking the arrogant and dismissive attitude of McTernan interviewed on Daily Politics, where he basically said we dont give a toss what the public want, they will not get it because Labour know better ? Are we seeing an insight into the psyche of Miliband ?

  2. swatantra says:

    In 18 monthjs time, it’ll be dead as a dodo.

  3. steve says:

    “The next election, whether the party likes it or not, will revolve around economic vision and competence.”

    That immediately puts Labour out of the game.

    How on earth can Labour move on from New Labour’s disastrous economic incompetence when so many Labour MPs still claim to be proud New Labour’s record in office?

  4. paul barker says:

    Someone will no-doubt point to other polls that give Labour higher leads si I will just point out that an average of the last 8 Polls gives Labour 38% & a lead of 5%, precisely the situation before Millibands speech at Conference.
    Longer term, Labours average has fallen 5% since January.

  5. Harry says:

    Ouch!

    But nonetheless very correct.

  6. BenM says:

    Ex Labour repeating Tory myths again.

    “Labour itself has done this when in power with a massive escalation in welfare costs ”

    Welfare spending as %GDP was lower under much of the last Labour government than under the previous Tory one (and the present one).

    It has risen again due to the private sector financial crisis.

    There is certainly a political difficulty for Labour as it believes – rightly – in a strong social security safety net.

    And the paradox is that this belief leads to smaller welfare bills than cocky Tories who constantly attempt to hack away at it.

  7. Ex Labour says:

    @ BenM

    And who does Labour expect to pay for this safety net ? Oh don’t tell me its those rich bankers. Except of course every spending commitment by Labour is payed for by the rich bankers. At the last count it was about 12 different spending commitments.

    The truth is the previous Labour government left the country high and dry, exposed by the banking crisis as were many other fiscally irresponsible socialist governments around the world. No boom and bust was the Brown mantra, but then we find out whats been going on in secret to pay for Labours profligacy like selling the countries gold reserves.

    Just face facts – the country have no faith in Wallace and Gromit to run the country’s finances and as the economy grows, unemployment falls, the deficit keeps falling the public will rightly ask – do we want to risk having Labour back to screw it all up again ?

    Answers on a postcard to Mr E Balls.

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