Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Pledges for power

The art of opposition is to credibly oppose the government of the day while positioning yourself as a legitimate government-in-waiting. You need costed, credible policies to motivate activists and signpost the future direction of your government, but not so many as to create easy targets for the sitting government to prey on.

Liz Kendall’s ‘5 pledges’ announced earlier this week – ending inequality from birth, eliminating low pay, building a caring society, sharing power with people and providing a future of hope for young people – suggest a candidate capable of performing this hazardous juggling act.

To have any chance of winning in 2020, Labour needs a leader who can radically rethink our offer to the public. Returning to our positions of the 1980s would certainly be radical but electorally suicidal. Resurrecting old policies with bigger targets on housing or child poverty is literally more of the same.

Kendall’s pledges have the ability to unite the Labour movement, effectively oppose the Conservatives and signal a fresh direction for the Labour party.

Her pledge to reverse George Osborne’s inheritance tax cut and invest the money in early years care ticks all the boxes for a costed, credible policy that contrasts Labour values of equality with Conservative action to entrench privilege.

In sharp contrast to what she has labelled Grand Theft Osbo with the Conservative’s not-quite-a-living-wage, she has promised to expand the remit of the low pay commission, made up of trade unions and businesses, to look at ways to implement a true living wage sector by sector.

Not only is this more business-friendly than Osborne’s crude, centralised approach, it highlights the coalition of trade unions and progressive businesses Labour’s next leader needs to build that Kendall has also prioritised via the ‘Yes to EU’ referendum campaign.

Trade unionists should also find a lot to like in Kendall’s pledge for a more caring society. Ensuring carers are paid for travel hours and no longer have to buy uniforms out of their own wages have both featured strongly in Unison’s campaign on care.

On devolution, Kendall’s interest is longstanding so it is no surprise to see one of her pledges devoted to it. As a councillor in Bradford where we have run a successful programme called get Bradford working, helping hundreds of people into employment, I believe devolving power from Westminster will bring more innovation and efficiency into the public sector. Crucially, Kendall’s views go much further, representing a real opportunity for Labour to win back some of the momentum Osborne has created with the Northern Powerhouse.

Kendall’s last pledge is on building a future of hope for young people, centred on opposing the abolition of the student maintenance grant and investing in the green jobs of the future. The grant issue is key: a deeply regressive move by Osborne that means poorer students leave university with significantly more debt than their wealthier peers.

The next challenge for Kendall is tying the pledges together into a unifying message – what is the underlying inspiration that will guide Labour back to power over the next five years? Whether it is empowering workers through better rights and pay, empowering young people with a better start in life or empowering communities, councils and regions through radical devolution, Kendall continually comes back to the idea that ‘every corner of our country should have the power and control to shape their own lives’.

Empowerment is Kendall’s trump card – she should play it.


Alex Ross-Shaw is a Labour councillor in Bradford


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Alex Ross-Shaw


  • You and I and Liz might really like the idea of devolution of power to localities etc, Alex. Unfortunately, the public does not appear to. When asked (post-election) the paired question of whether they preferred equality of service standards or devolved power, those polled went 58% to 21% for the former. See

    It’s difficult at this stage, then, to argue that this should be a key message, while at the same time arguing that the Corbyn campaign is wrong to argue against austerity when most people seem in favour of it.

    Incidentally, I don’t agree that the main role of opposition is to “credibly oppose” the government. Its main role is to hold it to account on behalf of citizens. These are very different things.

  • Hi Paul, thanks for commenting. I think the key thing with devolution is how it’s sold – theoretically people don’t like ‘postcode lotteries’ but if devolved powers meant greater innovation and efficiency, then would that be a worthy trade-off even if it meant some areas developed faster than others? I find it hard to argue that we could potentially have a system that allowed for faster improvements, even if at different rates, but won’t put it forward because some areas will improve more slowly. There’s also nothing to say they’re mutually exclusive – you can be statutorily obliged to provide a service, but have devolved powers and funding to improve on that or innovate at your own pace. But yes, over time it will mean some areas offer something others don’t.

    With regards that poll, I am not surprised people choose for the specific ‘equal services’ over the vague ‘decentralisation’. If you said phrased it as giving council’s the powers to tailor services to the needs of a local area, you might get a different response!

    Regardless of that, the point is really about empowerment and the underlying theme between the pledges and other areas Kendall has talked about – devolution is one part of it, but so is a modernised union movement, online balloting, worker representation, so on and so forth. So devolution is part of it, and a big part, but not the whole story.

    As for people being against austerity – well they’ve just voted for a majority Tory government so it’s hard to argue that the country is dead set against it. I tend to agree with the analysis that they don’t like it, and might argue against individual cuts, but they broadly believe it’s necessary and there’s not a chance on earth they’ll vote for a Corbyn economic prospectus. I don’t like the phrase austerity anyway, which to some people means any public spending cut at all – except miraculously the areas they don’t like, usually defense etc.

    As for the role of an opposition, I’m not really sure what the difference is between what we use – it feels very semantic and I imagine if we went into detail we’d probably agree on most of each other’s perspective. You can’t hold a government to account unless you are credible.

  • When I was a Liberal student 40 years ago I suggested that devolution to a local level would be a good thing. I knew that it would throw up excellence as well as chaos, but I believed that the good would be transferred to the bad quickly, while respecting local autonomy at all times.
    Friends from left and right quickly convinced me that 1) people don’t like chaos much 2) good doesn’t always win over evil and 3) there are a lot of people out there who don’t respect autonomy. I decided that mine was a bad idea. 40 years on and a proud Labour Party member, I still do.
    To make devolution to a local level work, you need to work out WHAT you’re going to devolve, WHO you want to devolve it to, and WHETHER they have the financial ability/organisation to do it. In short, you need to manage and police it. That’s at least as expensive as doing it yourself, and it’s patchy to boot. Frankly it’s a non-runner.

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