Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Responsibility wars

Battle is raging for control of the ‘responsibility agenda’ but the parties may be stymied by policy difficulties and their own recent histories, argues Steve Van Riel

The first political fights of 2012 so far have all been about responsibility, with Labour and Conservative strategists trying to gain ‘ownership’ of the idea in the public’s eyes. You can see the attraction: here is a concept that allows you to assert your values without necessarily passing a law or spending money. David Cameron’s attack several years ago on chocolate oranges on sale next to the counter in WH Smith was a classic example: it told parents he was on their side, but he has not felt obliged to pass the Controlled Substances (Spherical Cocoa-Based Products) Act just yet.

A florid denouncement looks strong and gets coverage even when you denounce something that is uncontroversially thought a bad thing: for example, a Labour spokesperson condemning those who cheat the welfare system or a Tory attacking tax evasion by the wealthy. Because it is all done through language, not policy, you can pick the ground that works rhetorically – vital if you are tackling a sensitive issue on your own side. Helpfully, it seems that if you hang a sign on your argument saying ‘Wanted: straw man’, the daftest elements of each main political party will always provide a volunteer. Then your spokesperson is left with a perfect counterpunch: after all, who is in favour of claimants cheating the system or people evading their tax obligations?

Behind the scenes, I have been as guilty as anyone in advocating such frustrating tricks in the past but they make outside analysis a bit like trying to juggle with bars of wet soap.

You might think you have understood what someone means when they assert that ‘markets are there to serve our society, not to suck the joy out of it or trample over its values’; when they call for measures to ‘shape capitalism to suit the needs of society, not shape society to suit the needs of capitalism’; and even decry ‘the old orthodoxy that nothing should be allowed to impede the pursuit of profit’. You might confidently warn the public of their plans for ‘Sovietising capitalism out of existence’ – but then the bar of soap slips from your grasp when all the policies actually proposed are more ‘so what?’ than Soviet. (That exchange was David Cameron and Simon Heffer in 2009 if you are a collector of hysterical journalistic responses to politicians’ windy attempts to sound radical).

So we are in the extraordinary situation of the leader of the opposition and the prime minister both choosing the same topic for their first speeches of the new year.  The biggest consensus is a rejection of what Cameron called this week the ‘Faustian pact’ – give markets plenty of room to operate and use the proceeds to help the worst-off – that has been a staple of much centrist and left thinking since John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’. Over the years, Cameron has repeatedly argued that Britain is ‘too reliant on government spending, on housing and on finance’ and that ‘we are not going to solve poverty by just building an even bigger tax credit system. We are going to solve poverty by looking at its causes.’ For Miliband, the last Labour government ‘focused on how government could act to address the consequences’ of the market while we should now be ‘dealing with the roots of our economy’s problems.’

The proposed solution – more responsibility at the top and bottom of society – seems a snug fit with the zeitgeist. On welfare, a YouGov poll last August found that 53 per cent of the population thought the government’s cuts to welfare were about right or did not go far enough. But at the same time, the Financial Times is running a ‘Capitalism in Crisis’ series and another YouGov poll found that more people said they supported the aims of the Occupy protests at St Paul’s Cathedral than said they opposed them.

At the top, Labour has now set out a list of specific proposals on tax and corporate decision-making, though has not quite decided if these are designed to stop markets failing in their own terms or if they seek to achieve more ambitious goals, like making society more equal. Cameron clearly felt it necessary to follow Miliband’s lead in tackling the subject last month although he avoided many specifics and it seemed unclear whether he did it to close down a resonant potential line of Labour attack or to tempt the opposition into overextending itself.

To the surprise of many critics, Miliband’s ‘producer-predator’ speech at party conference did not seem to put large numbers off the Labour party. However, neither did it appear to attract a big group of voters who were previously unsure which party would be tougher on big business. That makes it hard to see how the policy agenda, whatever its merits, can be at the forefront of winning new voters to Labour at the general election.

At the other end of the social scale, the politics is reversed. Tory funder-cum-strategist Lord Ashcroft’s ‘Project Blueprint’ polling on how the Conservatives could win a majority in 2015 had a 20-point lead for the Conservatives on the issue of welfare. But he noted that those who voted Tory in 2010 but are now wavering are more disenchanted with the Tories on welfare. This is a group Miliband badly needs to expand, leaving Labour with a lot more to play for, politically, in the arena of welfare reform.

Liam Byrne beat even Miliband and Umunna for the first big op-ed of the year, with a call for Labour to remember the ‘something-for-something’ basis of the Beveridgean welfare state. However, as the coalition has discovered, it is quite hard to toughen the rules on whether people are deemed to be looking for work or sufficiently ill not to. Iain Duncan Smith has been very wary of touching the jobseekers’ sanctions regime he inherited or making the work capability tests more stringent. He has instead focused on cutting the levels of entitlement and tidying up the way the system treats the move from ‘no work’ to ‘some work’. Byrne’s creative response has been to look at rewarding those who do exercise responsibility. But it will tax even the former chief secretary to the Treasury to find policy changes that do not create new burdens for the exchequer.

These political and policy difficulties might explain why, despite the keenness with which they are being fought, the responsibility wars do not seem to be having much effect on the relative positions of Labour and the Tories in the overall opinion polls.

I suspect it is also because both sides have some responsibilities of their own to face up to. Running up a deficit was the least-worst choice available in the face of a global economic crisis, but it was Labour’s choice and one the whole party has to be responsible for. Equally, the constant refrain of ‘it is all Labour’s fault’ whenever the consequences of their policy decisions are raised – be it welfare cuts or rising unemployment in towns that had been dependent on the public sector –  always looks like ministers trying to avoid being held accountable.

Shirking responsibility is the antithesis of leadership and even the suspicion of it suggests a combination of weakness and dishonesty that kills political reputations. Victory in the responsibility wars may come to the side first willing to say that a lack of responsibility is a problem which extends beyond a few thousand benefit cheats and a few hundred top executives.


Steve Van Riel was the Labour party’s director of policy and research at the 2010 general election


Photo: UK Parliament

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Steve Van Riel

was the Labour party's director of policy and research at the 2010 general election

1 comment

  • yeah yeah thanks Alex Salmond but we can all think of a few other things we would like to see removed !

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