The Purple Papers: Labour means work
On a few occasions, as Steve Van Riel notes in The Purple Papers, the Labour government did suggest people should pay more for better public services. When it was a rise in national insurance for the health service, this was largely popular. When it was a levy on inheritance for social care, it was not.
‘In Gordon Brown’s 2002 Budget he announced what was to become the most popular tax rise ever. Reflecting on this now in 2010, it makes a marked contrast with the lack of preparation and testing that went into 2009 Budget … Much of the painstaking planning of the early New Labour days had been abandoned by then. However, in 2002, armed with extensive voter feedback, using language carefully tested to press the right buttons and with surrounding publicity of TB and GB visiting Chelsea and Westminster Hospital GB argued, “What we did was look at what the healthcare needs in this country are. The tax is done in a fair way”.’
The national insurance increase that Van Riel cites was the most popular tax rise ever, a Labour success grounded on robust preparation, while the levy on inheritance was a failure typical of a period in which this robustness had fallen into abeyance.
The Purple Papers are right, of course, that much has changed since 1997. But many of the fundamentals of political success haven’t: understanding the electorate; knowing what they value; crafting an argument in language that they understand that links popular values to Labour values and the policy decisions that follow from these values.
We shouldn’t allow the changed context, particularly in terms of fiscal constraints, to blind us to the enduring significance of these political fundamentals. For too long the Labour party has seemed hobbled by these constraints. And, indeed, they are intimidating. Robert Philpot observes in The Purple Papers that the short-, medium- and long-term challenges facing an incoming Labour government are potentially huge, having dispassionately reviewed the evidence on the state of public finances. Equally, however, the party should also be liberated by the capacity of proper application of these fundamentals to build new consensuses in favour of positive change.
Philpot argues similarly when he calls for the party to define its priorities and then decide how it wishes to allocate Britain’s £700bn of public spending to them. Socialism is, after all, the language of priorities. And when thinking in such terms we would do well to not forget the name of our party.
It should be a cause of embarrassment that Iain Duncan Smith has so effectively traduced our party in recent years that one might be forgiven for thinking that we are the Welfare party. Over two-thirds of voters in the south consider Labour to be close to benefit claimants, according to Southern Discomfort Again.
Yet one of the best received speakers at any local Labour party meeting that I can recall did not come to exalt the virtues of welfare but to praise the dignity of work. The introduction to Colin Crooks’ How to Make a Million Jobs notes that the figures equate ‘to nearly one working-age person in three being unemployed or ‘economically inactive’ in the UK’, which he describes as ‘a staggering and scandalous figure. It represents millions of wasted and stunted lives; it represents a tower of frustration, anger and disappointment.’
The enthralled reception that the Dulwich and West Norwood GC gave to Crooks indicates that Labour members agree. And do you know what? While I’d like some of Mattinson’s polling to back up my hunch, I reckon the median voter would be just as won over by what Crooks argues as our GC was.
Furthermore, Crooks offers a raft of innovative policies that seem to me to have the potential to actually do something about the problem he identifies. Graeme Cooke and Patrick Diamond also stress the importance of maximising our employment rate in The Purple Papers, as well as outlining further convincing and affordable solutions. Cooke rightly argues that we need a pro-jobs employment policy; a pro-jobs welfare system; and a pro-jobs spending strategy.
What is this edging towards? Something that has all the elements of the most popular tax rise in history:
First, a concern driven by Labour values, which in 2002 was the NHS and in 2015 might be full employment.
Second, a Labour value that resonates with popular values – Andrew Lansley has discovered how important the NHS is to voters and the cause of work might be just as powerful.
Third, means of delivering these popular values, which the investment in the NHS following the national insurance increase brought and which the ideas of Cooke, Diamond and Crooks could bring.
The different fortunes of Lansley and Duncan Smith are insightful in taking this forward. Duncan Smith has largely done what he told the electorate he was going to do. Lansley did something quite different. We should get on with telling the electorate that Labour means work.
Jonathan Todd is an economic consultant. He tweets @jonathan_todd
Andrew Lansley, Deborah Mattinson, employment, Graeme Cooke, Iain Duncan Smith, jobs, Labour, national insurance contribution, New Labour, Patrick Diamond, Purple Papers, Steve Van Riel