Thursday, 17 December 2009

Will class war win Labour a fourth term?

John Rentoul, who continues to illuminate his blog with examples of questions where the answer is 'No', has already gone a long way to deal with the notion that 'class war' will be answer to Labour's problems. Tom Harris does so well today too.

Naturally, those I speak to in No 10 deny that any strategy so crude is under way. And I wasn't alone in celebrating Gordon Brown's recent return to form at PMQs, when he had a few decent jokes about Eton and Cameron's crew. He and Osborne deserve to have their pomposity pricked a bit, and we need more such humour. But as someone who has been a part of Labour politics since the early eighties, I also know that it would be absurd and self-defeating to craft an election campaign around the theme.

That's not to say that there aren't individual actions that can be vote-winners. The PBR attack on bankers' bonuses is believed by Downing Street insiders to explain last week's remarkable council by-election victories. But it is to recognise that Labour will not win by developing absurd dividing lines which place Labour on the wrong side of aspiration. Becoming a party of aspiration was - and remains - the essential insight behind New Labour's continued electoral successes. And it would be absurd to throw it away on the illusion that a greater number of so-called core voters might be persuaded to turn out in May (the idea that there will be a March poll seems fanciful) if they heard the call to the barricades.

Instead, Labour needs to have a much sharper message about what it can do and what it can't do, as well as what it has done. It is understandable that ministers didn't want to reveal the entire departmental budgets ahead of a post-election spending review. And given the uncertainty of the result, it is quite sensible too. Look at what happened when 'priorities' were revealed in defence this week. However, it was a tactical mistake to try to obscure the overall size of likely cuts in the years ahead in last week's PBR statement when it was patently obvious that the IFS would have its own figures within 24 hours. And the government should have been clearer that decisions to raise national insurance or top rate income tax are a temporary and regrettable measure, not a cause for celebration.

At the same time, Labour must do more to highlight its approach to the public services - and its successes which get routinely rubbished by partisan pundits. Despite some criticisms by my friends at Progress, Andy Burnham's health statement last week was a decent attempt to explain a clear approach to NHS reform, even if it was a bit neutered by attempts to please some of the unions. Tessa Jowell has interesting ideas on mutualism. Andrew Adonis is doing remarkable things at transport, showing what Labour should have done ten years ago. Peter Mandelson has grappled the question of university fees and produced a decent plan on skills (just a shame there's no money with it). But elsewhere, the government's approach suffers from a confused message and a perverse willingness to cede ground to the Conservatives on Labour innovations, particularly on schools and academies.

Despite a lot of talk about failures to narrow the gap under Labour, the truth is that chances have been considerably improved for the working classes as opposed to the 'underclass' - those who voted for Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 - with the greatest improvements in health and education for those groups. [See here for example, go to the Excel table 4.1.1]. They might resent the bankers, but they're not interested in class war or dodgy dividing lines (something Cameron could suffer for as much as Labour). But crude attempts to compare the top and bottom 10% social groups don't bring out their improvements. And those voters do want some straight talk from the Labour government that many of them elected, which means an honest appraisal of the last 12 years and an honest assessment of what could be done with a fourth term. And they need to hear it from all the Government.

It may not have quite the same ring to it, but a message to ministers to give it to the voters straight could help bring back many of those who now say they will vote for other parties. It is rather more likely to do so than recreating the Tooting Liberation Front.

1 comment:

Richard T said...

Come off it. Just who is practising class war?

So the enthusiasm for cuts in public spending which will affect the less well off amongst the CBI, the Institute of Directors, Chambers of Commerce and the majority of the Tory party is nothing to do with protecting their class?

The objection to tax increases on the better off presumably isn't protecting them then? Like most voters, my gut instinct is to ask why the hell I should suffer to protect irresponsible and greedy bankers and industrialists.

Let's have a robust exposure of the special interests who are whining because they might have to contribute fairly to the country. Don't forget the figures about that the level of tax the poor pay is proportionately close to double that of the rich. If exposing this and the Tory self interest in upping the level at which inheritance tax starts for example is class war then so be it.