Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Parking trouble

Many Labour supporters found Theresa May’s keynote speech to the Tory conference disheartening for (at least) two reasons. The speech signalled a worrying lurch towards hard Brexit, but it also contained the ominous rumbling sound of tanks lining up to park themselves on Labour’s lawn. The prime minister went through a list of policy areas traditionally associated with Labour – industrial strategy, worker’s representation in the boardroom, investment in infrastructure, standing up to unacceptable business practices. The previous Conservative administration conducted the occasional raid into our territory, most notably making off with a watered-down version of the living wage, but the threat that May poses is of a different order.

I do not believe this is a moment for panic. If Labour can rise to the challenge of developing credible and popular alternative economic and industrial policy which answers the Tories point for point, then the fact that we will be fighting on our own ground turns a threat into an opportunity. For the task that Mrs May has set herself is not an easy one. There is an ingrained perception among many voters that the Tories are good at making money and good at saving it, but bad at investing it in public services or caring much about people who have not already ‘made it’ in life. Labour is seen as the diametric opposite. These crude caricatures sometimes bear little relationship to reality, but the perception can be stubbornly hard to change. So the prime minister faces quite a challenge to convince anyone that the Tories have suddenly abandoned all their wealthy friends and donors, and are now on the side of ‘ordinary working-class people’. Successfully engineering a wholesale change in a party’s image is something that has only been achieved once in modern times – by Tony Blair when he established Labour rather than the Tories, as the party of economic competence.

Unlike May, Blair had the advantage of an unanswerable mandate for change. This came firstly from a Labour party which had overwhelmingly backed him as leader in every section of the vote, and was then endorsed in the 1997 general election with the largest government majority in the post-war era. But as leader-by-default, May cannot claim the same level of backing from her party, and has no endorsement from the electorate at all. Many Tory activists in Birmingham must have been utterly bewildered as they heard phrases they had denounced as ‘Trotskyite’ when they had fallen from the lips of Ed Miliband 18 months earlier, turned into official Conservative party dogma. Unsurprisingly, the prime minister lacked the courage to antagonise them further by offering concrete proposals in her Birmingham speech and without the back-up of credible policies, her words remain unconvincing – for now.

Meanwhile, tilting the political agenda towards areas where Labour is naturally more trusted carries significant risk for Theresa May. At the last election, Miliband’s central insight about the impact of a rigged market and the need for a more responsible kind of capitalism, failed to make much headway with voters who were more worried about the immediate problem of the budget deficit. But with May now effectively declaring: ‘I agree with Ed’, Labour’s long-standing insistence that a completely laissez-faire approach to globalised capitalism simply does not work for the majority of British people, is both resoundingly endorsed and placed right at the centre of the political stage.

This is not a call for complacency on Labour’s part – it is a call to arms. We cannot hope to defend our traditional territory with meaningless protest slogans. Our response must combine solid policy with a compelling broad-based narrative behind it. In a collection of articles drawing on Miliband’s theme of ‘Responsible Capitalism’ published last year, Progress argued that while Miliband ‘got the essay question right, he got the politics wholly wrong’. We cannot afford for this to happen again.

So Labour’s policies to deal with irresponsible businesses should not come across as an ideologically motivated attempt to stifle enterprise or to deny entrepreneurs the just rewards of their efforts. Instead, they must be presented as the natural conclusions of a debate about the right relationship between business and society. Similarly, we must not allow plans to fund necessary infrastructure projects through government debt, to be painted as another example of Labour’s ‘fiscal incontinence’. John McDonnell rightly described his investment plans in terms of an eminently sensible business decision to borrow to invest. But his policies need to be backed up by some serious voices from the private sector and also by economists who are confident enough in Labour’s ability to develop coherent policy, to work with the leadership for more than a few months before quitting.

Meanwhile, Theresa’s tanks are on the move. Labour needs to be ready.

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Christabel Cooper is a candidate in the general members’ section in the Progress strategy board elections. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops

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Christabel Cooper

is a Labour party member

2 comments

  • Who are the baddies in I, Daniel Blake? More to the point, what are they? Are they likely to be Tories? Hardly! Until Jeremy Corbyn came along, people like that were the only ones left in the Labour Party in any numbers. Therefore, there are now two Labour Parties. One is the party of Daniel Blake and of those who side with him. The other is the party of his persecutors, the party that invented benefit sanctions, the party that devised the Work Capability Assessment that is now being discontinued by the Conservative Party.

    One is the party that wants to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The other is the party that not only refuses to vote for such a halt, but which, in the case of Stephen Kinnock, tweets that we are somehow morally obliged to supply those arms, siding so explicitly with Saudi Arabia in Yemen that one wonders why he did not vote with the Government.

    One is the party that wants to enact the NHS Reinstatement Bill, which is the reason why even David Owen wants Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister. The other is the party that broke up and privatised the NHS in England, but nowhere else, in the first place.

    One is the party that wants my friend Barnaby Marder to remove the failed racist rabble-rouser, Zac Goldsmith, from Parliament. The other is the party that wants to leave it the Lib Dems, late of the Coalition, to remove the failed racist rabble-rouser, Zac Goldsmith, from Parliament, but which would not mind if they failed to do so.

    One is the party that wants to save the beautiful South of England from fracking, HS2, and a third runway at Heathrow. The other is the party that wants to despoil irreparably the beautiful South of England by means of fracking, HS2, and a third runway at Heathrow.

    One is the party that respects the outcome of the EU referendum, even without necessarily expecting awfully much ever to come of it. The other is the party that wants to re-run the EU referendum until the plebs give the right answer, and which is in the meantime prepared to give a free pass to the unprepared Prime Minister, to her buffoonish Foreign Secretary, to her honourable but over-promoted Brexit Secretary, and to her morally repugnant International Trade Secretary.

    One is the party that is delighted that the EU referendum result has made the focus of political attention the areas that voted Leave while voting Labour, to the extent that even a Conservative Government will actively pay Nissan to employ people in Sunderland, with many more such examples doubtless on their way. The other is the party that is horrified both at the Nissan deal, and at the notion that the slightest political attention ought to be paid to the areas that voted Leave while voting Labour, areas that that party routinely purports to represent in Parliament and in local government.

    One is the party that will support Theresa May against many of her own side, and which will press her to deliver, on workers’ and consumers’ representation in corporate governance, on shareholders’ control over executive pay, on restraining pay disparities within companies, on an investment-based Industrial Strategy and infrastructure programme, on greatly increased housebuilding, on action against tax avoidance, on banning tax-avoiding companies from public contracts, on capping energy prices, and on banning or greatly restricting foreign takeovers. The other is the party that will vote with the Conservative Hard Right against each and every one of those measures.

    One is the party that has always wanted to take back the rail franchises into public ownership as and when they came up for renewal. The other is the party that now pretends always to have been of that view, but which in reality used to scream abuse at those of us who dared to express it.

    One is the party that fought tooth and nail against the Blair Government’s assault on civil liberties, an assault that had begun under the previous Conservative Government, before any thought of Islamist terrorism. The other is the party that still yearns for identity cards and for 90-day detention without charge, and which conspires with the Conservative hangers and floggers to give the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee to Yvette Cooper.

    One is the party that always opposed the failed austerity programme of the sacked George Osborne. The other is the party of the only people who still think that that programme was correct.

    One is the party that has opposed every British military intervention of the last 20 years. The other is the party of the only people who still defend each and every one of those interventions.

    One is the party that stands outside Durham County Hall in protest at the bailing out of Durham County Cricket Club while all 2700 Teaching Assistants are to be sacked at Christmas and then reappointed on a 23 per cent pay cut. The other is the party that wallows inside Durham County Hall or in a private box at the Riverside, bailing out Durham County Cricket Club while sacking all 2700 Teaching Assistants at Christmas in order to reappoint them on a 23 per cent pay cut.

    One is the party of Jeremy Corbyn. The other is the Nasty Party.

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