Fear is the constant companion of Labour in opposition. We become nervous when our poll leads shrink and the memory of lost elections past is summoned from our collective recall. Are we as secure and as safe from political earthquakes as we need to be to win?
Last summer, as Labour seemed to falter, the party’s morale was buttressed by the stubborn failure of the Conservatives to appeal to voters and by a single speech by Ed Miliband proposing a straightforward policy change that offered the electorate a practical, financial reason to vote Labour. That single policy, extended to a wider narrative, sustained Labour’s morale right up until the budget.
But the budget upset the other buttress of Labour confidence. George Osborne managed to unveil policies voters initially approved of, and which did not unravel in the first week. These policies were designed to force Labour onto the back foot, making it difficult to respond without dividing the party.
Three of those challenges were laid at the door of a woman who could be a future leader of the Labour party, Rachel Reeves. How adroitly she responds could decide her own future and that of her leader.
First, Osborne demanded Labour support his proposed welfare cap. For Labour, this presents a political challenge. Voting against a welfare cap was a major political risk. Voting for one felt, to many on the left, like a betrayal of their social consciences.
The old Campaign group voted against, with the intriguing addition of Tom Watson, but more significant are those who, while willing to vote for a cap or diplomatically abstain, wish to be assured that such a policy can be delivered without grinding the poor as a consequence of austerity. Labour’s position on this has been to suggest the cap can be kept on by holding down housing benefit, building new houses and offering a jobs guarantee, not penalising the poor.
This will be tested by Osborne’s second poser. The budget made clear that, if departments are not to be cut to the bone, the welfare bill must bear the pain from post-election cuts. Over the next year, the scale of this will become clearer, and Labour members of parliament will be sorely tempted to oppose those cuts. If they do, money will have to be found to pay for them. A zero-based review will be a useful shield only for so long. How can the party be held together in the face of these pressures?
Osborne’s final problem for Reeves is pensions. The proposed reform of annuities puts the stress on people’s control of their own pension pots. Labour’s collectivist tradition, present on both the right and left of the party, is suspicious of such moves, seeing the potential to expose the vulnerable to mis-selling and abuse, but it is clear that a significant slice of the electorate will find the idea of not being forced to buy an annuity attractive. How can Labour advance a fair, collective pensions system, while still giving people the freedom many desire?
These are tricky problems for the former chess champion. So far she has shown an impressive ability to keep the party united behind her position. In welfare spending she has stressed both a commitment to getting young people into work, but promised not to demonise social security claimants.
On pensions, she is supporting the principle of flexibility, while giving those opposed to the specific reforms the space to argue that the detail would be unfair and unworkable.
As a result, the anger in the party over the welfare cap has been limited to the usual suspects, while the battle on pensions reform will move to the detail, not the principle.
So far Reeves and her team have matched Osborne move for move. But the fights over the welfare bill will become greater over the coming year, as the price of five more years of austerity becomes clearer. Can the position hold? If it does, Reeves will deserve much of the credit.
Steadying the ship
The most useful measure of Labour party confidence is not found in opinion polls, but in the volume of negative briefing by various parts of the Labour party. If you expect to win, there is very little to be gained by briefing against the leader’s advisers, the shadow chancellor, or the election coordinators. That is why parties confident of victory look united, even when they are not. There is no value in being a rat leaving a sea-worthy ship.
If you suspect you might lose, though, getting your retaliation in first is useful. Having an explanation of why you lost, whether excessive caution, impractical boldness, or simple incompetence, insulates you while apportioning blame firmly elsewhere. Of course, everyone else knows this too, which is why even minor policy tensions turn into gutter fights. This explains the latest round of red-on-red briefing. It is a symptom of electoral nerves.
In past such wobbles, Miliband has steadied the ship by making a tactical advance which unites all the main elements of the party. This has been done by policy, like the fuel freeze, or in organisation – through party reform.
The challenge is to find the next advance that helps the party to value loyalty through voter appeal. One option is higher and further education, where the unravelling of the £9,000 fees policy creates an opportunity for cheaper degrees and a better deal for non-university bound students. Cheaper degrees and better apprenticeships for business? Miliband loyalist John Denham has been mining this area. Could it be a way for the Labour leader to show the party the value of sticking together?
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.