Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Win, lose or draw for Labour

In two separate sessions at the Progress political weekend Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy both said that Labour needs a draw on the deficit and a win on growth. Spooky. It was almost like they were singing from the same hymn sheet.

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These two fronts contain various interrelated battles: jobs, the cost of living, tax and public spending. Can Labour convince that we can reduce unemployment without sparking fears that we’ll let spending get out of control? Can we identify tax changes that will reduce the cost of living while being credible on the deficit?

While this economic terrain will determine the next election, the shared formulation of Alexander and Murphy set me thinking about other policy areas. As shadow defence secretary, Murphy is committed to challenging the perception that Labour is the party of the NHS and the Tories are the party of the military. The catalogue of incompetence that has been this government’s handling of perhaps the most consequential foreign policy shift since the fall of the Berlin Wall means that we might aspire to more than a draw on defence. We are better placed here than we might have expected to have been at the start of the parliament.

Andrew Lansley has also left the Tory chin much more exposed than his ‘promise’ of ‘no more top-down reforms’ suggested would be the case. John Healey should be aiming for a knock-out. This will require that the debate is framed as good Labour reform versus bad Tory reform, not unaffordable Labour spending on the status quo versus Lansley’s reforms.

Iain Duncan Smith did not so much enter the welfare debate at the DWP with his chin exposed as with a baseball bat in his hand. Labour had become so synonymous with unfair welfare payments that we were ripe for further kicking on the issue. Alexander began to recover Labour’s position as shadow DWP secretary. Liam Byrne seeks to complete this journey. But we began it so far behind that the best we can now possibly achieve is a draw.

We also remain far from victory on immigration, in spite of the inevitable chaos of the government’s misguided cap. Mrs Duffy remains more potent in this debate than the Labour party. The temptation is for Labour to give in to the instinct that Mrs Duffy embodies. But so long as access to highly skilled and mobile labour remains important to economic success – that is, so long as we continue to live in a global economy – this instinct, while containing fears that should be properly responded to, cannot lead in a straight line to optimal policy.

Labour also faces dilemmas on the battlefield of education. First, Andrew Adonis wants to convert all of Birmingham’s lower performing schools into academies, as he told the Progress gathering. Does Andy Burnham? Second, my regard for my alma mater isn’t enhanced by its confirmation that it will now cost £27,000 to cover the teaching costs of my degree. But what’s Labour alternative? Can a graduate tax be both workable and escape the perception, so damaging to us, of big government?

Last weekend gave me much to think about but I remain convinced that we are best when boldest.


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Jonathan Todd

is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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