The single most important foundation stone for Labour’s recovery is a renewed commitment to a strong economy, and that means governing in facts, not in wishful thinking. Harriet Harman did Labour a massive favour by shaking the party from its dream state over welfare and thrusting it back into the brutal reality of our predicament: not in government, not even close, no economic credibility, no vision, no mandate, no power. Has Labour any coherent answers to the big issues facing the country and the world? Many in Labour are not yet even prepared to hear the questions.
The response to Harriet’s suggestion that we should support the Tories’ limiting of child tax credits to two children from April 2017 (‘Resign!’ ‘Tory!’ ‘Workhouse conditions!’ ‘Unforgivable!’) shows both how difficult it is to have a real debate within Labour at the moment, but also how much it is needed. As a welfare rights worker I have done a lot of work helping people to access tax credit over the years, and I would defend their model if Labour was in government. But the truth is, we are not. The other truth is that the tax credit change Harriet proposed supporting take nothing away from existing children or families and she was absolutely right to identify it as something we could support. They say to the country that in two years’ time anyone – rich, poor, middle – will have financial responsibility for their third, fourth and fifth children and beyond. Would Labour have instigated such a change? Possibly not. But if we are really honest, is asking people to take responsibility for their choices so, so wrong?
Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper rushed to condemn Harriet saying this would remove people’s incentives to work. Leaving aside the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who choose to have children (or not) make the decision based on a whole plethora of things, including money, it is also the case that the vast majority of people would never choose a life on benefits. Most in Labour make this latter argument, and rightly so, but how can we make it with any credibility if at the same time we say that limiting child tax credits to two children will make people give up work and do just that? And this is one of the other major problems Labour faces – two leading Labour leadership candidates are pretending we can have our cake and eat it. This vacillation is dishonest politics which in the long run makes a rod for the backs of the entire Labour party. It is perhaps the central reason the Labour leaderships of Burnham or Cooper would fail to convince the public to elect us: What would we stand for? What would our intentions really be? How could Labour be trusted?
Add to this the sight of Labour’s rapidly emerging Corbyn-ite zeitgeist – a retreat back into the politics of a divided, outdated, class-obsessed society – and we deliver music to Conservative ears and a tragedy for the prospect of a future centre-left government. There are some voices of hope, but they have a fight on their hands to make the Labour party electable again. Right now, the road seems long. Anyone who has worked in welfare knows that New Labour was the most redistributive government this country has ever had, but we did this quietly – almost by stealth – with no grandstanding, no showing off to our friends on the left, no banners, no placards, no marches, no whistles, no bells. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown knew redistribution was making the country a better place but they also knew it had the potential to scare people away from ‘same old Labour’. They choose to forgo the adulation of the left and instead do the right thing for the people. New Labour was mature and generous, and electable.
We were in power then, and as Harriet has been reminding people, we are not in power now. We had the luxury of being able to deliver things. We do not have that luxury now. Labour activists and members of parliament can scream and shout as much as they like – it makes absolutely no difference to what is happening in the country. Labour naively vacated the centre-ground of British politics and in doing so allowed the Tories to redefine the country as centre-right, not centre-left. If we ever want to get back into power we need to be a lot more humble in the face of our defeat, we need to do a lot less shouting and a lot more listening, we need to start being more honest, more straight with people, more realistic about what needs to be done. In short, Labour needs to honestly engage with reality before we part ways with the country forever.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.