How does Labour win a majority?

Labour risks falling short next May, agree Atul Hatwal and Marcus Roberts. Here they present their solutions

The poll lead is shrinking, our leader trails David Cameron by double digits on who voters would rather see as prime minister, and Labour lags the Tories on trust on the economy by, again, double digits. No opposition party has won while trailing on both leadership and the economy. To win the general election, serious work is required.

Last September, Labour Uncut launched a book, Labour’s Manifesto Uncut, where we set out what the party needs to do to win a majority in 2015. At its core, action is required in three areas: regaining economic credibility, identifying funds for Labour’s alternative and painting a vision of Labour’s brighter tomorrow. There is an uncomfortable truth that the party must face: we lost the last election largely because the voters felt they could not trust us on spending.

Ed Balls has made many of the right moves. Committing the party to the same day-to-day spending totals as the Tories narrows the spending gap. But we are already seeing what happens when the gap is narrowed but not closed. The Times recently splashed with a front page on Labour’s £25bn spending bombshell while Danny Alexander has touted a Treasury costing that Labour would spend £166bn more in the next parliament than the government. Both stories refer to the potential for extra borrowing Labour has allowed for infrastructure investment but are harbingers of what is to come.

Between now and May we will see an endless stream of tax and spending ‘bombshells’ raining down on Labour. The Uncut manifesto calls for the party to neutralise this threat by fully matching the government’s spending totals.

But there is no point in simply aping the government. Uncut’s second step involves identifying how a radical Labour alternative can be funded. Out of the £740bn of public spending we must find ways to reprioritise and raise targeted new revenue. Labour has spent so long opposing every cut the government has proposed that it often seems our vision of a better tomorrow is just a little less awful version of the Tories’ today. We need to be bolder. In the manifesto, we outline some of the tough choices that need to be made. For example, Uncut calls for the ringfences around education and health to be brought down. They exacerbate the depth of cuts in other public services and inhibit even the small-scale efficiencies which are possible in almost every organisation.

We further call for the scrapping of five government departments: Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, culture media and sport (merged into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and international development (with core development funding transferred to the Foreign Office).

Measures such as these would free funds for public priorities and send a clear message that a Labour government would be unflinching guardians of the public purse.

In all we have identified £34bn of funds to finance Uncut’s third step: a series of fully funded commitments that show the difference Labour can make. Examples of what is possible include: free universal, preschool childcare to reduce barriers to employment and cut family bills; 1m new jobs targeted in the areas that need them most with a revived, regionalised Future Jobs Fund; and 1m new homes over a parliament, with a new housebuilding programme to provide the extra 250,000 homes needed over and above current supply.

These are not cheap policies. Childcare would cost £10.3bn, the jobs fund £8bn and the extra homes £12bn. But under the Uncut approach, all would be funded without the need to raise income tax, VAT or borrowing. This platform would tangibly help voters and fundamentally redraw the dividing lines in British politics, moving the political conversation from spending and the deficit on to Labour’s positive agenda.

These steps are not easy. With every month that passes time gets tighter and the challenge greater. But if the party acts with urgency and commitment the future can still be won and we will yet see Labour return to power in 2015.

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Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut

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Prior to 2010, David Cameron had a big political project that, as the general election drew near, he retreated from. The result was a majority-less victory.

Now Ed Miliband risks the same result for the same reason. For where Cameron surrendered the rich turf of Tory detoxification and brand reconstruction through a more compassionate conservatism now Miliband faces pressure to retreat from his radical project of transformational policy and movement politics.

As election day nears Miliband is pressured to both ‘shrink the offer’ with a ‘safety-first’ manifesto and to accept the counsel of despair that says his low leadership ratings and poor economic trust numbers mean the party has little hope of winning a large enough number of seats for a majority.

But it is not yet too late for Miliband to make a strong choice in favour of a big offer to the British people and the pursuit of all 106 key battleground seats. If he does so he can inspire first the party and then the country to embrace real change in 2015 – not some victory of constituency mathematics alone.

What would such an approach entail? First, it would mean approving the maximalist positions that Jon Cruddas’ policy review is exploring. From Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall’s plans to integrate health and social care to Lucy Powell’s work on universal childcare, such an approach would also see Labour follow Sadiq Khan’s trial balloons on rent caps and granting local authorities borrowing powers for housebuilding. The hallmarks of this approach are the devolution of power and the embrace of actors other than the central state to effect change. Caroline Flint’s ‘switch together’ campaign is a fine example of how Labour can approach politics differently, involving communities and individuals in the task of reshaping the energy market; likewise Hilary Benn’s call for a dramatic devolution of power and budgets away from Westminster. Even Ed Balls seems more interested in this terrain then ever before with his speech to the Fabian Society conference explaining how ‘responsible capitalism’ and strong industrial policy can help Britain win a ‘race to the top.’

In contrast to this agenda is the case that all Labour needs is a series of small, transactional offers: a price freeze here, a tax credit there, to compel voters to tick the Labour box based on pocketbook alone. This argument states that governing is too hard and money too tight for Labour to make any larger difference in people’s lives and that policy modesty is thus the order of the day.

The argument over the nature of the manifesto is mirrored by a clash between differing campaigning approaches. On the one hand is the strategy the party has pursued for three years now: using Arnie Graf-style community organising to grow volunteer capacity, reach out to non-voters and win back the public’s trust, one doorstep at a time.

Set against this is the view that, with just 15 months on the clock, Labour cannot waste time with non-voters or living wage campaigns and must instead focus purely on voter ID and leafleting for the 2010 core vote plus a smattering of former Liberal Democrats. Some who already thought that the 106-seat long list of target constituencies was over-ambitious now desire shortening it, leaving parliamentary candidates facing bigger Tory majorities stranded without national party support.

This clash is nothing less than a moment of choice for the Labour leadership: radical politics and a roll of the dice on a big win or ‘safety first’ and the hope of a coalition or minority government. For it is not that the adoption of big policies guarantees big majorities. Rather it is the idea that a big movement can only be powered by a big politics. This is what it will take for Labour to have the huge numbers of activists spending more than just cursory moments on doorsteps to mobilise the broad coalition of former Liberal Democrats, new and non-voters and even Conservative switchers.

Miliband must make the strong choice for a radical politics now. There is a clear dividing line: shrink the offer and shrink the target seat list versus go big or go home. Only one is worthy of his leadership. Cameron’s coalition is the warning to us all of the consequences of making the wrong choice.

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Marcus Roberts is deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society. He is the author of Labour’s Next Majority: the 40 per cent strategy

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Credit: Louisa Thomson

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Comments: 4...

  1. On March 10, 2014 at 6:06 pm Cassandra responded with... #

    Where’s the evidence that Labour@s lead is shrinking? Last two I saw were 7 and 9 point leads. It’s remarkakably stable.

  2. On March 10, 2014 at 8:42 pm Katy responded with... #

    Atul is right. As much as I love community organising, it’s about the policy. Allowing more borrowing and unworkable rent caps? Really a vote winner?!

  3. On March 10, 2014 at 8:55 pm Anonymous responded with... #

    It looks as if we are in for a fight in May 2015. I believe Tony Blair will be advising but Labour need a Peter Mandelson and a Labour Rebuttal Unit somewhere in the fight. In Look East a few days ago the BBC showed two Tory MP’s in quick succession making points that should have had a Labour voice as a matter of political balance but there was none. Labour need to nail these people immediately.

  4. On March 11, 2014 at 9:29 am Roy Steele responded with... #

    Think-tanks, like goldfish tanks, need regular cleaning out, or the water gets murky and mucky. The UK Ship-of-State is in incapable hands (ConDem alliance) at the present time and has run in to so many icebergs over the last 4 years, yet still floats [?]. Now Fabius-the-Delayer was heard to say: “For the right moment you must wait .. but when the time comes you must strike hard, or all your waiting will be in vain and fruitless.” Clever guy that Fabius. Whilst not upsetting the nicer, polite people who would seek to pretend that they are steering their ships through safe seas, to an ultimate victory at GE May 2015, Fabius, if alive today, may warn our policy-makers up at LABOUR HQ that the time has come to strike hard against the Hannibals in the loyal opposition – 14 months is a long time in Politics anything can happen. Act now, as the man above says.

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