Left-wing populism is not the answer for Labour

by Renie Anjeh

Energy price freeze, scrapping the bedroom tax, rent controls, 50p tax rate – all part of Labour’s offer to the British people next year.  No more Old Labour, definitely no more New Labour – it’s all about Radical Labour.

The party is beginning to set out its popular, and increasingly populist, stall for the British electorate in the run up to the election next year.  Those who are arguing for Labour to ‘shrink the offer’, are losing the internal debate in the party – the radicals have come out on top.  It’s unsurprising that there are those who want the party to go even further by promising to renationalise the railways, introduce a graduate tax, abolish zero-hour contracts and borrow more to pay for spending commitments.  However, this strategy could hinder, rather than help, the Labour party.

Look at the Tories in Opposition. In 2001 and 2005, both William Hague and Michael Howard championed rightwing populism.  Hague – a fervent Eurosceptic – campaigned against the prospect of Britain joining the euro, saying that there were ‘twelve days to keep the pound’.  Although his policy on the euro was undoubtedly very popular, Hague lost the election and became the first Tory leader not to become Prime Minister.

Howard, having given up on his early attempts to modernise the Conservative party, campaigned on tougher controls on immigration, a tough stance on crime, more stringent discipline in schools and lower taxes.  These policies were also very popular with the public but he lost the 2005 election.

This was partly because the Tories were simply not trusted with public services, they looked uncomfortable with modern Britain and people felt that some of its policies reinforced the ‘nasty party’ label.

Labour’s critical weaknesses are on the economy, welfare and leadership and if the party fails to address these issues then, like the Tories in 2001 and 2005, it could end up in opposition for another five years.

Like the Conservatives in opposition, its individual policies may well be popular but the party has to ensure that they do not reinforce the image, an unfair image in my view, of a spendthrift, high taxing, anti-business and over-regulatory Labour party.

Some in the party would argue that Francois Hollande in France and Bill de Blaiso in New York are examples of progressive politicians who have won elections by adopting leftwing populism.  That is true to some extent but we should pay attention to what has happened since their elections.

Hollande pledged to introduce a 75p tax rate, lower the retirement age, introduce rent controls, end austerity and declared that ‘the enemy is the world of finance’.  This was a robustly populist and radical platform on which to fight an election.  However, Hollande’s populist agenda has proved to be unworkable, so he has been forced to move to the centre – his 75p tax rate was dropped, he cut taxes for employers, cut public spending and Manuel Valls – a soi-disant Blairiste – became his Prime Minister.

Bill de Blaiso attacked charter schools, opposed ‘stop and frisk’, proposed tax increases for the wealthy to pay for spending commitments as part of his Mayoral campaign.  Since becoming Mayor of New York, he has been unable to deliver on his tax increases, expanded charter schools and Bill Bratton has returned to New York City Police.

It just goes to show that left-wing populism may provide the party with a short-term boost and raise the morale of activists, it might even sometimes succeed in winning an election, but it could be problematic for the party in the long-term.

Bashing the bankers and the energy companies might sound good but it is not a plan for government.  Freezing energy prices and scrapping the bedroom tax may be good policies in themselves but they will be meaningless if we are not a credible party of government.

This doesn’t mean Labour should eschew all radicalism, but a  ‘bold, transformative offer’ will count for nothing if we are not where the British public are on the economy, on welfare and on aspiration.

The idea that the centre ground moved leftwards is dangerous myth that has been promulgated by some on the left, and unfortunately many in the Labour party have fallen for it.  As Caroline Flint said this week, “we should campaign as we intend to govern”.  If Labour does not heed her wise words, then Ed Miliband could end up being the left-wing Michael Howard or even the British Francois Hollande.  The Labour party cannot afford to let that happen.

Renie Anjeh is a Labour party activist

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10 Responses to “Left-wing populism is not the answer for Labour”

  1. swatantra says:

    Caroline is right. Its no good promising more than you can deliver. But we can deliver on the Re Nationialisation of Rail and the Utilities. An these are populist measures. And if Housing were given over to Councils then we could deliver on those 1m Affordable Homes. But Labour has to admit that the term ‘Left’is toxic to the Labour brand. Labour should in future be calling itself a ‘Centre Left Party’, so as not to frighten off the horses. It may mean losing some of the dyed in the wool diehards who haven’t come to terms with the C21, but there we go. We are a One Nation Party.

  2. Mark Webster says:

    Your article leaves me somewhat bemused, as the policies to date are far from “radical”. If you are cautioning against these so called “radical” proposals such as re-introducing the 50p tax band , then what exactly is is that you are proposing. I think you are in danger of having nothing to offer the electorate other than the status quo.
    There must be a purpose to being in govenment. If you strategy is that you can sneek into office by stealth with a bland agenda that doesn’t rustle any media feathers, then to what purpose do you want power, if not to make bold chages ?

  3. Tafia says:

    Housing – be it open market, affordable purchase or social for rent is governed purely by one thing – demand. I you want to bring the price of housing down and/or rents then you have got to build more housing than there is demand for and build it where it is needed. Therein lies a conundrum greed. Builders will not build unless there is money in it for them and voters will not vote for a party that promises to devalue their house.

    We need to build large scale council estates all over the country. I watched a Tory politician on TV the other day openly admit that there was a problem caused by lack of supply and that to stop house prices (and thus rents) rising faster than wages would require 300,000 houses a year to be built, every year for a decade. Developers own vast tracts of land but won’t build because the profit margin isn’t currently there but if you tried to force them they would just stop full stop so a lot more land needed to be made available in order to force land prices down so that developers used up their holdings before they went negative permanently. However, they in turn would inisist on road networks, power, water etc being in place first and to cap it all, future occupiers would want them close to employment, schools, hospitals and retail. One thing he was adamant about was siting close to employment because he reckoned people still haven’t realised that the days of cheap motoring are not coming back – that motoring would continue to get more expensive in comparison to earnings so future commuting distances for relatively ordinary jobs have got to be affordable.

    In short, it’s a mess and nobody knows what to do first because they all say they need the other bit in place before they will jump. So government planned and driven large developments – council estates, are probably the only realistic way out of this I reckon

  4. Henrik says:

    News flash, Labour is not a One Nation Party, it’s the party of the public sector employee, the liberal establishment and the unemployed. That’s not a bad thing, it’s entirely right and proper that these groups have a voice in society, but pretty much everything Labour says at the moment seems calculated to frighten those in society who are none of the above.

  5. aragon says:

    When people say all politicians are t6he same they mean it literally, all ‘small government liberals’ as Steve Richards puts it. Some more liberal than others.

    Go with the Blairite policies as outlined by Caroline Flint in the Guardian and the Labour decline will continue.


    Zoe Williams is right where are Labour on Zero Hour contracts?


    “Apart from being limp to the point of irrelevance, this is immoral. The party is called Labour because it was established to represent the interests of people who work”

    Mired in the Miliband fudge of the least possible action, if any, Miliband makes the Tories look principled.

    The weakness lies not in the policies, but in the leadership and implementation.

    We should campaign as we intend to govern, but we should govern radically not the unattractive message, we are Tories but not quite as nasty, but close, nothing can be done, Miliband, Balls, Flint political inaction.

    How can policies be both popular and outside the Overton window?

    We need more radicalness not the empty shirts that populate the modern political elite. Yes Gloria DePero, everybody does hate politicians and with good reason!

    The Overton window exists outside the Westminster political bubble and is demonstrably far more radical and to the left of the whole Westminster political consensus.

    You are not credible as tailors dummy’s, as your party political broadcast demonstrated, preposterous no policy just character assassination, talk about inside baseball.

    ‘Credible Government’, no incrediblely irrelevant, that’s why no-one votes and UKIP are on the rise!

  6. John Reid says:

    Thanks for the link to the Caroline Flint article,Aragon,hadn’t seen that,obviously I disagree,that you feel this’ll cost labour votes,but it was good to read a different view that the party,leadership anyway,

  7. Tafia says:

    Aragon – there are Labour councils up and down the country forcing staff onto zero hours contracts against their will. Has Miliband shown any leadership, intervened and told them to stop and to re-instate the affected employees to their original contracts? Has he bollocks – which means Labour support zero hour contracts or Miliband has no leadership abilities and lacks the respect and backbone to force his own party to comply or both.

  8. Renie Anjeh says:

    @Mark Webster – Thanks for your comment. What I am saying is that Labour should be radical without losing its political senses. Populism, whether it be Hollande and de Blaiso on the left or Hague and Howard on the right, will simply not work. We should want to change the country but if we don’t balance the nation’s finances, get real on welfare reform and support aspiration then it will count for nothing.
    @Tafia – Not sure that building more council estates is necessarily the right way. Housing co-ops, Community Land Trusts and more homes to buy would be sufficient. Capitalising housing benefit and extending Right to Buy (whilst ensuring that every penny raised goes to build new homes), is the right way forward.
    @Swantrata – Renationalising rail and utilities is not achievable.

  9. Tafia says:

    Renie, to build 300,000 houses a year every year for a decade can only be attempted by large scale schemes such as council estates – the logistics and co-ordinated planning alone means that projects need to be big – seriously big. Bigger even than the rebuild after the Second World War. Anything less is simply not big enough and will fail.

  10. Ian Butler says:

    This sort of article is precisely why people like me left the party and are so reluctant to re-join. It smacks of not scaring the horses and pretend we can run this rotten economy better than the Tories Blue and Yellow. It’s a concession to the idea that we’re all in the centre and we’ll be a little bit better than the others. As if the thought of a million people using food banks in the sixth largest economy in the word wasn’t enough to render that argument fatuous.

    The truth is that the drive to the centre has left Labour morally bankrupt and the fact that this still supported will render the party meaningless when they fail in 2015. The march of UKIP in the north is clearly not making an impression on the membership and if this continues Labour will be a footnote before you can say surrender.

    Time for leadership, time for courage, time for social democracy.

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