Labour’s plan B: concede and move on, and more

by Atul Hatwal

These are conflicted times for the Labour party. As the impact of last week’s election results has sunk in, two opposing camps have emerged.

On one side is the leadership and its loyalists. The official line is that the current strategy is working. In this interpretation, last week’s results were pretty good. 800 odd new councillors, an 8% increase in the national share of the vote and a Labour administration in Wales are indeed positives.

Not everything is perfect, ahem, Scotland, but things are basically going to plan.

On the other side are those unhappy with the current strategy. This is a big tent. In it, among many others, are Dan Hodges, Sunny Hundal and Rob Marchant and, based on his speech to Progress, Ivan Lewis, the shadow culture secretary.

For this camp, last week was a disaster. At a time of unprecedented government cuts, Labour managed to lose the popular vote in both England and Scotland and virtually no Tory voters from the general election switched to Labour.

Plan A is failing and unless something is done soon, Labour faces a dismal return to the 1980s.

Cards on the table, I’m no fan of plan A. My own post last week puts me slap bang in the middle of the unhappy tent. But over the past week, reading the different despairing takes on Labour’s performance, one thing has leapt out.

There’s no plan B.

Not in the sense that we are doomed and nothing can save the party, but that the focus of analysis has been on why it went wrong rather than what can put it right.

When confronted with results like last week, it’s understandable. A car crash is a grimly compelling event. But there needs to be more. Otherwise we are just mourners and there is no hope.

So here is an outline of what a plan B might look like. It’s based on the negatives identified in the polling in last week’s post and addresses three issues: tackling Labour’s trust deficit on the economy, giving the party something to stand for other than protest and turning an opposition leader into a future PM.

In the early 2000s, the Tories’ then pollster, Andrew Cooper, had a phrase when talking to his leadership about the economic argument: “concede and move on”.

Cooper used this when Tory shadow cabinet members would rise to Labour’s bait, reacting to charges of eighteen wasted Tory years. Up they would jump to champion their achievements, trying to win an argument lost in 1997 and defining themselves ever more as the same old Tories.

And now Labour is repeating the same mistakes.

If Labour couldn’t win the argument on the deficit in government, then plugging away in opposition without the authority of power will be futile.

Polls might highlight how the public would prefer a cuts programme that was less fast and less deep, but the follow-up question that is never asked is whether people would trust Labour to deliver it.

Politics is a comparative business and as long as Labour is committed to spending more than the Tories, the party will be vulnerable to attack and the public’s doubts will persist.

Given the depth of voter mistrust of Labour on the economy, part one of plan B is to tackle this weakness is by committing to the same aggregate spending totals as the government.

The logic that brought politicians as diverse as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook together around this economic approach is as relevant today as it was seventeen years ago.

It’s a logic that equally applied to the Tories when they were in opposition.

Their rise in the polls from 2007 to the heights of being 20 points ahead in summer 2008 was built on the sticking to the then Labour government’s spending plans.

The slide in Tory fortunes in late 2009 happened because they drew up different spending plans, over-egged the age of austerity rhetoric and every Labour charge, no matter how poorly executed, stuck because it was delivered with the authority of government.

Despite the public’s perception of Gordon Brown, the simmering civil war within the cabinet and the deepest recession since the 1930s, David Cameron still didn’t win the election outright.

If Labour’s spending flank is covered, part two of plan B can define a new central question in politics to replace “who can cut the deficit”.

“We’re all in this together” has always been the weak spot in the Tories’ narrative, because it’s demonstrably untrue. The rise of Flashman and ministers’ insouciance in the face of near stagflation makes the contrast between voters’ reality and Tory rhetoric all the more stark.

In this context, the new question should be “whose side are you on”?

To embed this in the debate, more than words of protest are required. It needs policies, with clear winners and losers, around which the dividing lines can be drawn.

In the 1990s, this meant hitting the utilities with a windfall tax to fund the new deal for the young unemployed. The two Eds’ recent proposal on reversing the VAT rise on fuel for motorists with the extra funds from the bank levy was an updated version of this approach.

There is currently an embarrassment of targets to expand it: a larger tax on City bankers’ bonuses, a bigger bank levy, a new windfall tax on utilities’ super-normal profits, a mansion tax on billionaires’ property empires; the list goes on.

And there is always a surfeit of deserving beneficiaries for these funds – the young unemployed, the squeezed middle, Worcester woman or whoever.

These types of ring-fenced policies would enable spending totals to be maintained whilst targeting new help for those most in need.

Back in the 1990s, the attack on “fat cats” was called modernisers’ class war. Tony Blair might have been personally uncomfortable with it, and nervous about the windfall tax, but it clearly defined Labour by targeting underserved wealth to support the hard-working majority.

Moving onto this territory would also help target the true fault-line in the coalition: Tory leadership versus Tory right. The right has been spoiling for a showdown for some time. Defence of heartland Tory interests such as the City, big business and large landowners would give them that opportunity.

More economically credible and populist policies would provide the platform for part three of plan B – tackling David Cameron’s persistent lead over Ed Miliband as the public’s choice for PM.

When Miliband became leader he made a point of saying that he wasn’t going to attack the left and triangulate in the way Tony Blair did.

That’s fine, by the end of New Labour triangulation too often became a substitute for policy. But Blair didn’t just position himself as a centrist through his attacks on the left, he also demonstrated his toughness as a leader to voters.

It’s not enough for Ed Miliband to just oppose the government. That is expected and there are precious few of these battles that the leader of the opposition can be seen to have won unequivocally.

Miliband needs to show his mettle as a leader, not just as a candidate who grasped the prize. It really doesn’t matter whether the fight is with the left or right. What counts is the fight, picking the right enemy who can be beaten and winning the laurels of victory.

At the moment, Ed Miliband is in danger of looking like a political pacifist.

It’s easy to dismiss this as juvenile macho politics. But the judgement and strength of the leader is as important as the policy platform. It’s why Alex Salmond annihilated Scottish Labour. An opposition leader that has not been tested by conflict or triumphed over adversity is an unknown quantity for voters trying to decide who is best to lead them through troubled times.

A Labour plan B that combined this tougher leadership with an economic battle fought on territory of Labour’s choosing would transform the political landscape. It wouldn’t solve all the problems overnight, but it would put the party back in the game.

Given where we are today, that feels like another country.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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9 Responses to “Labour’s plan B: concede and move on, and more”

  1. Amber Star says:

    PMQ yestreday: Ed M’s pithy defence of Labour’s record on the NHS was brilliant.
    Okay, so only the political anoraks watch PMQ – but it shows Ed can bring ‘it’.

  2. Amber Star says:

    Miliband needs to show his mettle as a leader, not just as a candidate who grasped the prize. It really doesn’t matter whether the fight is with the left or right. What counts is the fight, picking the right enemy who can be beaten and winning the laurels of victory.

    The above is nonsense.

    It matters very much what Ed decides to fight for.

  3. Henrik says:

    An interesting take. On the third part of your Plan B, of course, the critical question is who is actually going to lead Labour into the 2015 election – for sure it won’t be Ed Milliband, who copped the hospital pass of the century by becoming party leader just as the party civil war got going.

  4. CS Clark says:

    “It really doesn’t matter whether the fight is with the left or right. What counts is the fight, picking the right enemy who can be beaten and winning the laurels of victory.”

    This. Is. Why. People. Don’t. Trust. Labour.

  5. JohnB says:

    I think you overstate the urgency of this moment and overinterpret the poll figures, but I agree that the party needs to shift to attacking the nature and balance of the cuts/tax rises and not just their size. Bankers and fat cats are unpopular, and the coalition is vulnerable on this: there is certainly room for some aggressive populism which would also begin to answer the question of what the party is here for. But committing yourself to replicating government spending levels just one year into a Parliament when we don’t know what those levels will be or the state of the economy when an election takes place is just daft.

  6. Toby Chopra says:

    You make a lot of interesting points Atul but I think JohnB is right. Its just too soon to say we should concede the argument and start with a clean slate.

    The difference between what Labour faces now and what the Tories did in 1997 is that back then, it was clear that New Labour had won a convincing mandate to set a new agenda, whereas Cameron has nothing like that much of a mandate behind him. They didn’t even win the election and are sustained in power by a party that supported Labour’s deficit policy during the election campaign.

    The results weren’t brilliant but they were not bad either. The Tories are still on shaky ground themselves and the public ade still in two minds about them. By conceding the main argument we give Cameron the credibility he craves so let us not just gift it to him. Be patient.

  7. AnneJGP says:

    Interesting article, Atul, thank you.

    On Labour’s economic record, may I suggest a small project that would make a huge difference?

    It’s this: for Labour’s economic strategists & tacticians to turn their attention to repairing the finances of the Labour party, and try to achieve a solid solvency with a balanced budget by 2015.

    Those accustomed to dealing with the country’s finances may consider this challenge beneath them, but it would give them a track record they could offer to the public. The transformation of Party finances would speak volumes to the many voters who persist in believing in an equivalence between kitchen-sink finances and national finances.

    It would also give Labour a tremendous boost with the practicalities of fighting an election.

  8. definatelycharlie says:

    I think Labour should go the other way.The ‘no cuts’ approach is totally defendable,and Ed Balls believes in it anyway.The public have not yet heard the economic explanation for that position.It needs to be put.The recent evidence to support it is mounting up,with other countries’ austerity programs having the effect of increasing their debts,rather than decreasing them.From this stance,labour can start fighting for the most vulnerable in our society who’s state support is being cruelly taken away-and start exposing the lies that are used to justify it.And ofcourse another recession,which seems very likely,will effect the majority.It will be due to the cuts.Right now,when Labour opposes any specific cut,all the gov. needs to say is ‘you would do much the same’.

  9. “Sod the deficit. Its the Economy stupid!” It is now obvious that the Aristocratic Tory Government and their LibDem Lackeys’ kamikaze bid to cut the deficit as quickly as possible have lead to a stagnant economy and a reduction in real-term incomes for ordinary people. Labour needs to be campaigning on revitalising the economy as a whole and not obsessing on a single statistic.

    “Sod the deficit. Its the Economy stupid!”

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