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Labour needs simple answers to complicated questions

22nd January 2015

Matt Stokes on the Fabian New Year Conference and the future of the Left and Labour.

What do a rock concert and a leftie conference have in common? Not much, except for ageing men nostalgic for their younger years and a chronic inability to keep to schedule.

But the Fabian New Year Conference 2015 reminded me of a gig in another way. While the headliner drew in the punters, got them on their feet and provided fodder for journalists, it was the support acts who offered something new and something to look up when the fans got home.

Ed Miliband, on his third headline tour after ’11 and ’13, wasn’t there to announce new policies for a Labour government (and it was always a Labour government – any talk of coalitions or minority government was quickly silenced). He was there to mobilise the troops with well-worn material: on a “fairer, more just and more equal Britain”; on “valuing vocational and academic qualifications equally”; on protecting the NHS and merging health and social care; on “high skills and high wages”; on housebuilding; on ending the “scandal” of exploitative zero-hours contracts; on the Mansion Tax; and on reducing the deficit more responsibly and fairly. All, of course, mixed with a healthy dose of Tory-, Cameron- and Clegg-bashing.

There was enough to get the media talking – “Ed Miliband: Cameron’s wage call is desperate bid to hide living cost failure” was the Guardian’s splash while the Telegraph’s editorial attacked Miliband’s propensity to change his standpoint on some issues and simply not talk about others. Essentially, though, he was preaching to the converted; he just needed to make them a bit more evangelical on the doorsteps of British households.

In following sessions, however, the future of the Left became clearer – if not always the future of Labour. (It was refreshing to see open criticism of Labour throughout the day.) In sessions on very different subjects – the Election campaign and first 100 days of government, devolution, tackling inequality, and the ‘crisis of politics’ – a number of recurring themes shaped the discussion.

Many were predictable, either because they are strong points for Labour (the NHS, cutting the deficit more fairly, a future for young people) or to seek atonement for New Labour sins in front of what was largely Labour’s left wing (failing to build enough houses, being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and relying too much on the financial sector).

But there was also radicalism, such as calls for a complete overhaul of the tax system, rather than tinkering around the edges – simplifying tax codes, taxing wealth rather than income, introducing new council tax bands, favouring direct over indirect taxes and reforming National Insurance, for example. The Left must detoxify the word  ‘tax’ – as two panellists independently noted, “taxes are the price we pay for civilisation” – and, more than anything, be upfront about taxes; after all, if there is one thing people hate more than paying taxes, it is paying taxes without knowing they are paying taxes.

Overriding all other discussion was the need to revive faith in politics and improve democracy. Individual electoral registration, which Ed Miliband had attacked only two days before as “David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s final insult to young people”, came in for further criticism. Unsurprisingly given their dual tendency to lean towards Labour but not to vote, the importance of engaging young people could not be overstated. Equally, the Left must beware of over-promising in opposition and under-delivering in government.

The Scottish referendum campaign, which led to 84% turnout (against 65% for the last General Election) was held up as a model to emulate, and its result held up as a chance to fundamentally renew our democratic institutions, such as through a cross-party constitutional convention, alternatives to first-past-the-post (even if only at local government level), a democratically elected second chamber, and – more than anything – decentralisation and devolution.

In modern Britain both Red and Blue pledge ever more devolution, even as power continues to be consolidated in Whitehall. But the extent of support for decentralisation – Shadow Justice Minister Sadiq Khan promised to spend 100 days winning power and 100 giving it away – suggested that a Labour government really would (at least try to) trust local government with bigger budgets, involve communities in decision-making, and work with local government rather than compete – as the last government did for the hugely successful London Challenge, which improved schools across the capital. Local government became a panacea, from combating inequality through locally-specific targeting (such as the Camden Plan) to improving infrastructure, from building houses to increasing democratic accountability.

But talk of devolution, decentralisation and constitutional reform doesn’t win an election. Most people don’t mind how their hospital, children’s education or railway lines are run, or by whom. They want them to be run efficiently.

And that ties into Labour’s biggest problem: communication. Beyond stereotypes of Ed Miliband as a “weirdo,” Labour faces the nastiest election campaign in years, a right-wing media onslaught which has barely begun, and a lack of cash. But the party is at fault too: activists and candidates are still shackled to ‘party lines’ and ‘approved messages’ on the campaign trail and the party’s intellectual debates cannot compete with simple (or over-simplified) rival messages.

Labour needs to ask itself some simple questions. What would people rather hear about – hypothecated taxes or lower taxes? Who will build a house and how, or that it will get built? How the Tories have failed, or how Labour would make things better?

It is those answers which will decide the election. Ed Miliband would do well to remind the party evangelists – and himself – of it.

 

 


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