Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The choice before Labour

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.


Nora Mulready is a member of the Labour party in Tottenham. She tweets @NoraMulready and blogs at

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Nora Mulready

is a member of the Labour party in Tottenham


  • I agree, Harriet was right and she should not be castigated for a difficult piece of political manoeuvring in an unfavourable climate. Part of the problem here is we’ve allowed redistribution and the safety net to be rebranded as ‘welfare’ which is a very negative word in my opinion. I think we need to set a more neutral and less stigmatising term to something which is in most cases an essential additional allowance for those who are less well off.

    I would also like to see a return to universal benefits which are then recouped from the wealthiest through the taxation system and sold using positive terminology.

  • Surely the decision to reduce welfare is about those things which are chosen as priorities. The banks have been and are continuing to be heavily backed by state support, there is massive tax evasion/avoidance that has not as yet even seen the light of day, the PFI repayments will be a bankrupting sum of repayments. At that time what does the Labour establishment chose as its issue for parliamentary notice – small welfare payments without any other changes to escalating divisions of wealth. At the right time I could be persuaded by the arguments for welfare reductions that hurt the weakest, but I would only do so after, or alongside massive evidence of talking real problems with wealth draining from the establishment and its hangers on. This is the real argument – the Labour establishment actively pursues purity of mission in very selective areas – those that some people will confuse with a Tory mission.

  • Surely the correct order of working is:
    1) big increase in wages esp for lowest paid – far beyond current NMW (which we should trumpet as a Labour Govt success) or Tory living wage trick;
    then 2) re-align benefits.
    To do otherwise is a further attack on the poorest who are already suffering the most.
    Is it not possible to produce a popular policy which says the economy needs higher low and middle wages (and investment) relative to top earnings and profits?

  • I wanted to support Andy Burnham. But I am disabled. And he didn’t think that I was worth voting for. So, Jeremy Corbyn it is, then. The personal is still political, Harriet. The personal is still political.

  • Oh, Nora, I hate to disagree, but Harriet’s intervention was catastrophic. It divided the party at a moment it desperately needed unity, it created a sense of despair amongst the selectorate as to what we were for which drove voters to ‘real’ Labour values (ie Corbyn), and for what? Were we fighting an election tomorrow it might have been critical to signal to the electorate where we were on benefits. But in five years time, substantially no one will remember how Labour voted in 2015, and literally no one care.

    There is, of course, a time when the Party will need to confront the disjunction between where it, and the electorate, is on benefits. But under a new leader, who has an mandate from the Party to lead on that issue.

  • Nice to see the Chief Economist to the Bank of England pick up my point about relative size of profits in the economy (!) Surely at this moment the Party should be debating the big questions about economic development, particularly in the lagging regions. The role of the banks is part of that, as Verity suggests. But what do we get? Hardly any policy discussion about anything. We get generalised mudslinging. I do not want to hear that candidate A would be a disaster – I want to know the weaknesses and strengths of candidate A’s policy proposals – if any.

  • I do agree that we should honest with the country, and we are keeping on about New Labour achievements. What we haven’t grasped is New Labour kept, all the Thatcher Government policies. they sold every thing and we are paying the price for it. The Collations Government has been whipping us which became a mantra that the Labour wrecked the economy, every chance they got they kept on saying it and the irony is we never rebutted them. We still hasn’t learn any thing we are sill allowing the media to set the agenda, and Tony Blair is so deluded its unbelieverable. We seem to have put our self in a bine, because the Tory’s and their media will be a field for them.

  • Harriet was right, but the party doesn’t want to hear it. 67% of the country supported the limitation of child tax credits to two, compared to 20% against (Yougov). We are sleep walking into at best inertia, at worst extreme leftism. I personally can’t talk too much more.

  • DbIEntry, could you point out any ‘extreme left’ policy espoused by any of the leadership candidates?

  • The problem is that Labour doesn’t have a vision for welfare or even a few practical suggestions.
    There were huge problems with the Tax Credit system and no idea to improve things.

    To be honest I hadn’t noticed the Harriet Harman was supporting this single part (tax credits for only 2 children for new applicants) of the Conservative welfare reforms, as the impression given was that she was supporting most of it. (or was the impression I was given right)

    I am astounded that Jeremy Corbyn is described as loony left for supporting – not replacing trident and renationalising the railways, two moderate and popular policies. Even worse I am depressed to think that so many Labour MPs either support replacing Trident or don’t but will say they do as they think they need to, to win elections.
    I remember seeing Ed Miliband speak about how the bedroom tax was terrible, unjust and cost money but he could pledge to repeal it. (couldn’t pledge to repeal something that cost money and caused misery) later he did pledge to repeal it, but as so often, he was arguing about which bit of the Conservative proposals he agreed or disagreed with, nothing about what Labour supported.

  • In supporting Harriet Harman, at least in part, Nora goes on to criticize 3 of the 4 leadership candidates, not particularly fairly, without mentioning the one who appears to support Harriet’s viewpoint 100%. Why not? What’s wrong with being positive?
    I also don’t like statements saying that New Labour was, on the quiet, the most redistributive government ever. It DID distribute plenty of largesse among the poor, for sure, but it did so because it could afford to; and meanwhile it presided over a growing wealth inequality which according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation took Britain backwards 40 years. Although there were less very poor people, more people were allowed to slip into poverty while it governed. I’m not going to defend or criticise that record, although it’s not to my personal taste, but I think it’s really self-delusional to portray it as anything other than what it is.

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