This piece was first posted on The Staggers, and is an edited version of a longer article in Fabian Review which will be available online soon. It is was written by Ed Wallis, Editor of Fabian Review, and Ruth Davis.
Labour and the Art of Opposition:
It is five months since the exit poll that shattered Labour’s dreams of a return to office after just one term. Now, after an extraordinary and unexpected summer of internal debate, the party must face up to the task the electorate has presented it with for the next five years: opposing the first majority Conservative government of the 21st century.
The programme laid out by the Conservative party in the Queen’s speech and budget earlier this summer was designed to put the Labour party on the wrong side of a set of political arguments. The government believes this will damage Labour for a generation, and accelerate its decline as a party of the working class.
The ground has been laid for a titanic narrative struggle. The Conservatives will attempt to present themselves as the party of quality education, affordable homes and decent wages for working people. At the same time, they will encourage Labour to use its political energy on opposing spending cuts, defending welfare, and aligning itself with big public service unions.
This sets Labour an unprecedented challenge, because blanket opposition to the measures on the table will give the Conservatives exactly what they want, whilst risking mortal damage in the eyes of the electorate. The test of Labour’s skill will be whether it can use this hazardous environment to spring the trap laid for it, and instead establish a new identity and purpose that takes it beyond the government’s intended stereotypes.
Part of the response to the Conservative’s political gambit will be inevitably short-term and tactical. As well as the need to resist the most egregious legislative measures, the party will want to demonstrate that it can cause the government discomfort. But the choice of which fights to pick should be determined by the basic tasks of opposition: are there places where bad law can be made better, or where the government’s dominant narrative can be disrupted or undermined?
This requires looking at where the government is politically vulnerable, but also where cross-party and non-partisan alliances can cause it serious problems. In an era of rock bottom political trust, voices from outside of party politics can be uniquely effective in rallying opposition. The IFS, for example, will generally carry greater weight than Labour in determining if the government’s budgets really do ‘hit the poorest hardest’. Some areas of obvious potential include the proposed reductions in working tax credits, which have already been condemned some self-styled ‘one nation’ Conservatives; the EU referendum bill, where the government is inevitably mired in in-fighting; and the troubled and divisive HS2 project.
No doubt these upcoming battles are already whetting the appetite of some Labour MPs. But to succeed in the job of re-building electoral trust and thwarting the Conservative’s political project, there are also areas where Labour must learn a language of unambiguous support, like the devolution bill.
Labour has been comprehensively outflanked on devolution by the ‘northern powerhouse’ project. ‘Devo-Manc’ is a fantastic opportunity to build civic pride, spread power, drive efficiencies and turn around some of the country’s worst health outcomes. It is also an opportunity for Labour politicians to control significant regional budgets at a time when it is out of power in Westminster. Yet Labour has gone out of its way to find fault with the government’s devolution deal, too often sounding grudging and churlish. Instead, as Tristram Hunt put it, “we must shelve our timidity, match the Tory offer and go beyond it”.
But the biggest test for Labour will come in the form of the strategic elephant traps that have been laid by the Conservatives with such precision. While these are undoubtedly politically fraught, they also present opportunities for deep thinking about the party’s intellectual underpinnings. They are the prisms through which Labour must ask itself what it is for, in modern Britain?
The welfare bill is a case in point. One of Labour’s biggest strategic weaknesses is that it is seen as the ‘party of welfare’. As a recently unearthed memo written by Ed Miliband’s pollster in 2010 put it: “Labour is seen to have been a principal architect and defender of a benefits culture.”
The easy thing to do here would be to blame the right-wing media for promulgating a ‘scrounger’ narrative, attempt to reframe ‘welfare’ as ‘social security’, and oppose the cuts with a righteous fervour. The harder thing would be to accept that, when people think of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’, they have a point. Ultimately, Labour’s welfare bind is a reckoning with how it has conducted its core business for over half a century: the ‘end’ of a more equal society has been pursued almost exclusively through the ‘means’ of the tax and benefits system. The challenge for Labour is to develop a different answer – one that prioritises work and contribution, and reimagines the left’s purpose in an era of globalisation, scarce resources and complex problems.
If Labour were able to offer an answer of this kind, they would have a least a chance of defining themselves on their own terms. In so doing, they would also free themselves to exploit the Conservative’s weak flank: a welfare reform programme that leaves working people worse off. But to get a hearing on this issue will require a reckoning not just on welfare, but on the wider politics of austerity.
Labour must understand that the sharp differentiation from the government that the party seeks on spending must be found within a very shallow pool of economic trust; and that by proclaiming itself an ‘anti-austerity’ party, rather than laying out how it plans to invest in the productive economy, Labour will dry up that pool still further. All this points to the need for a political story that foregrounds the re-distribution of power rather than fiscal transfers; and makes the case for prudent public spending, focussed on areas that build the economy and have huge public support – like education, health, and essential infrastructure.
The government has made little secret of its intention to use this parliament to cement Labour into a series of choices and attitudes that will alienate it from working people. Its goal is to occupy the centre ground and lock Labour out of power for a generation. If Labour sets out humbly to rebuild its relationships with those people, and through this to shape a vision for a just and democratic economy, it will not only have renewed its sense of purpose; it will also have regained its freedom to act.