Ivan Lewis' speech to this evening's Policy 2020 event
Ivan Lewis' speech to this evening's Policy 2020 event
Who are the squeezed middle, and what can Labour offer them?
Check against delivery
I would like to begin by thanking Progress not only for initiating this event but for being at the cutting edge of stimulating the thinking and vigorous debate which is crucial to Labours renewal.
Back in 2007 I wrote an article for Progress which provoked significant controversy when I challenged both those in the party urging us to adopt a core vote strategy and those who suggested we should be focusing exclusively on the middle classes. My contention was that this missed the point about the New Labour coalition which had united these voters around a common set of values and vision for the future of the country. The problem we faced at that time which ultimately led to our election defeat was that all sections of the New labour coalition were beginning to have serious doubts about what we stood for and whether we were any longer focused on their concerns and aspirations. To attempt to choose between two critical parts of our electoral coalition was a totally false choice.
I refer back to this because it is relevant to how we attempt to define and reach out to the squeezed middle. In my view we should avoid falling into the trap of focusing on people in a narrow income bracket and instead acknowledge we are talking about the mainstream majority of people in work whose are neither rich or poor but frequently have living costs which leave them with minimal disposable income.
Ed Miliband has said that we need to draw a line under the new Labour era and prove we have changed. He is right that by the end of our period in Government the New Labour brand was contaminated. But by setting his focus on the squeezed middle Ed is demonstrating he is acutely aware that Labour will only win again if we can recapture the support of the mainstream majority. That our future success depends on attracting a combination of core supporters, disaffected Lib Dems and former Labour voters who switched to the Tories at the last election.
He understands that persuading progressive Lib Dems to transfer their loyalties to Labour is only stage one of our fightback and will not be enough to secure an election victory. But he understands too that this electorate cannot be taken for granted and to fail to win them to Labour would make our task at the next election far far harder. In summary, we can only win again from the centre ground of British politics. Last Thursdays elections with the exception of our disastrous showing in Scotland was a good first step in the aftermath of our second worse General Election result in history. But as well as a root and branch review of lessons to be learned from the Scottish result we have to face up to the fact that there was little sign of those squeezed middle voters in the south east, south west and east of England returning to Labour. On the whole despite the Governments too fast too deep cuts, tax increases and trebling of tuition fees they stuck with the Tories. A situation which if sustained would mean we will not win the next General election.
So, how do the squeezed middle view Labour and what can we do to address their concerns. Firstly, the positives. They and their families have benefitted from Labour’s investment in childcare, schools, the NHS and policing. They depend on and value the public services which significantly improved during our period in Government. But, towards the end of our second term in Government they started to question whether their standard of living and quality of life were improving and whether they were getting a fair deal. Many didn’t qualify for the tax credits or other extra support available to families. By 2010 they were angry with us and voted for change in large numbers.
At the last election, they saw Labour as the party of the north, standing up for the poor, benefit claimants, immigrants and minority groups. A party which talks a lot about rights but not enough about responsibility. It is important we understand the depth of people’s feelings and frustrations if we are to have any chance of reconnecting so they start listening to us again. I work hard, I try to do the right thing, I want a decent standard of living and the best for my children and grandchildren. Yet my bills are going up as are my taxes, I have less spare cash to enjoy life, I worry about my job and the future for my kids. I see some who don’t work including immigrants and neighbours having a better life than me and being looked after by the dole. I see others at the top earning obscene salaries and bonuses. I don’t see what Labour has to offer me.
So, now we have established the reality and scale of the challenge what are some of the solutions? I want to focus on six issues. Owning the future, the economy and public services, welfare immigration and excesses at the top, strong communities and effective opposition.
1 A vision for a better future rooted in reality
The squeezed middle are aspirational but insecure and more pessimistic than ever about their future and the future of Britain. Pessimistic about the kind of Britain they will pass on to their kids and the chances and opportunities their kids will have compared to their generation. Labour must offer a vision which gives people hope, is optimistic and shows how Government can support people and communities to fulfil their potential in a Britain which is confident, proud and fair. Being peoples voice in tough times as we expose the ideological excesses of the Conservative led Government is important but we must use the next stage of our renewal to paint a picture of the better country we want to build.
2 The Economy and Public services
We need to acknowledge our mistakes while taking on the charge we were to blame for the global financial crisis.
We need to stimulate an open dialogue with the electorate about fair taxes, an active Government industrial policy to support the jobs and growth of the future and in the aftermath of the financial crisis new national and global ethics which should underpin the market economy. We must reassure people on middle incomes that we understand their anger at cumulative direct and indirect taxes which can end up being unfair. We must make the case for public investment as integral to our vision for a better future. But demonstrate an equal focus on how we will ensure value for money and introduce reforms to schools, the NHS and the criminal justice system which are consistent with our values and give users, staff and communities more control and a bigger stake in their public services. Paying for a good society is unavoidable but Labour’s history should remind us that misreading peoples tax tolerance levels always leads to the election of Tory Governments which don’t share our vision of the good society.
We must engage with business, especially SMEs, and demonstrate through serious engagement that we understand their challenges and view enterprise as central to our vision for a better future. In our 1997 manifesto we offered reassurance on the economy by agreeing to stick to Tory spending limits and not increase the top rate of tax. We will need other similar commitments if we are to reassure people about our fiscal responsibility in the run up to the next election.
3 Our Children and Grandchildren
Ed Miliband has rightly attacked the Conservative Led Government for pursuing policies which will break the unspoken British promise that every generation will do better than the last. The aspiration that drives parents and grandparents to strive for the very best for their families. Maternity and paternity pay/ leave, affordable childcare, universal children’s centre and nursery provision, a good local school, youth services, fairly funded FE, HE and apprenticeship places, a guaranteed job after six months and a decent affordable first home. This should be the prospectus at the heart of Labours offer to work in partnership with parents and carers in a shared responsibility to deliver a better future for every family in Britain. We are the natural party of the family, but have too easily ceded that ground to the Tories in recent years.
4 Welfare, immigration and corporate excesses.
Labour has to admit that it failed to develop modern welfare and immigration systems which secured public confidence or support. Systems which also failed many immigrants and benefit claimants too. The perception and reality was sometimes that people who were not making any effort to work or were new arrivals in the country were supported by the Government to have a better standard of living than their fellow citizens on low and middle incomes in work.
On welfare Labour should oppose punitive measures which are inhumane, ill conceived and simply chasing headlines. Equally, we must be clear that it should be a requirement of citizenship that people either work or in return for benefits undertake compulsory training or voluntary work. The only exceptions should be people who through serious illness or disability cannot function in the workplace and their carers.
There is a strong case for unemployment benefit payments being time limited and at the end of a specified period people being offered a job. The integrity and legitimacy of the system would be greatly enhanced if there was a correlation between people’s level of entitlement if they lose their job or are incapacitated and the contribution they have made.
On immigration it would be economically and morally wrong to promise people an artificial and undeliverable cap. However, immigrants should come to Britain from outside the EU only in circumstances where they are filling a skills gap or adding value to our economy. It must be very clear that new immigrants cannot displace British citizens waiting for social housing or access to other public services other than emergency NHS care. Labour market policies must ensure employers are prevented wherever possible from using immigrant Labour to undercut the pay of British workers and threaten their jobs. Illegal immigrants should be returned to their country of origin and any court processes should be fast tracked.
New Labour too often appeared timid when faced with excesses by companies and their executives. Corporate excesses including tax avoidance and excessive pay and bonuses are properly the concern of a party which believes in a good society. The capacity of Government to act may be limited in some circumstances but full disclosure and transparency will lead to greater accountability and scrutiny in the court of public opinion.
Labour should recognise in a global world driven by the market people are more attached than ever to community identity and pride. The work being undertaken by Maurice Glasman and others on blue Labour is important and likely to resonate with many squeezed middle voters.
We must be the party which respects tradition and identity linked to place, faith or culture. Those who preach Liberal values should respect not deride people of faith and accept that for many the Royal wedding made people feel a sense of patriotism and pride too lightly mocked by some on the left. Community cohesion means respecting the dignity of minority communities but also being uncompromising in demanding respect for the law and integration which is not the same as assimilation. We should reinvigorate local Government but only as part of a new settlement which ensures they in turn transfer resources and decision making powers to local communities. Alongside a small state David Cameron’s Big society is an illusion. But support for volunteering, Voluntary organisations, cooperatives and community networks should be central to Labour’s vision of a new state which is strong but decentralised and a partner not sole shareholder in the pursuit of a better society.
Communities can only flourish if they are safe and secure. Labour must give police, community support officers and residents the tools to be tough and uncompromising on crime and anti social behaviour. The Tory led Governments police cuts and scrapping of ASBOS runs the risk of reversing the significant reduction in crime achieved under Labour. Strong communities respect individual rights but they also depend on personal and shared responsibilities. Labour must seek a new covenant between state and citizen based on rights and responsibilities.
6 Effective opposition.
It is our duty to hold the Government to account. Squeezed middle voters are concerned about petrol prices, the Vat increase, planned reductions to child benefit and tax credits. They are yet to see the impact of cuts to policing, Youth services and elderly care support. Only now will the abolition of the education maintenance allowance and trebling of tuition fees start to shift from a concern to a stark reality. Some will have lost their jobs, others will fear for the future. In these circumstances many will start to question whether David Cameron really understands how tough it is and begin listening to labour if they feel we are articulating their concerns while demonstrating we are listening, reaching out and changing.
Finally, we will not attract enough squeezed middle voters if we don’t address the issues I’ve identified. But I want to be clear I am totally opposed to any notion of sending different messages to different sections of the electorate. By understanding their insecurity about the future, their doubts about Labour and the reasons they currently identify with the Tories we can build a narrative which reconciles our record in Government with a compelling vision for a better future. Our duty to be an effective opposition is clear but we want our party back in Government because that is the only way we can build a fairer and stronger Britain. We will know that we are on course when squeezed middle voters start to feel at ease with Labour once again.
benefits, community, corporate excess, economy, family, immigration, Ivan Lewis, policy review, public services, squeezed middle, welfare, welfare state, work and welfare