Mending the mutual

Written by Tom Freeman on 16 September 2014 in Inside Politics

How Labour can rebuild for the general election

‘Broken Britain’ was a phrase oft-used by David Cameron in the run-up to the 2010 election to portray an image of a country with widespread social decay. The phrase is less used now, despite subsequent mass riots which saw looting and arson in many major cities in England, several large protest marches against austerity cuts and NHS reform, and most importantly, a referendum on the future of the United Kingdom itself.

It is no surprise then that one of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s favourite words over the last couple of years has been ‘rebuild’. Both he and shadow chancellor Ed Balls have vowed to “rebuild Britain anew” with the promise to tackle the low wage economy and invest in infrastructure.

In terms of social cohesion, though, the challenge is far greater. With a backdrop of rising levels of inequality across the UK, Scotland’s independence referendum has seen larger than expected numbers of Labour voters consider independence as a way of shaking established social norms. Pollster YouGov found up to 30 per cent of people who had voted Labour in 2011 were intending to vote Yes, and as polls began to put Yes within touching distance of victory, Labour ‘heavyweights’ travelled north en masse to reiterate their commitment to further devolution.

Leader Ed Miliband urged Labour councils across the UK to fly a saltire as an indication of solidarity. He joined the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, to fly the Scottish flag from a council building in the city. The official cross-party campaign for No, Better Together, adopted a noticeably more ‘Labour’ message in an official video – one of Keir Hardie, the minimum wage and working-class struggle.

Others started to blame Labour for independence being on the table in the first place. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major used a column in The Times to label the party’s 1998 Devolution Act “a deadly legacy”. “No one should weep” for Labour if Scotland votes Yes, he said. Meanwhile American commentator Michael Wolff went further in USA Today, saying in enabling devolution, Tony Blair “felt it politically more efficient to offer the rump movement its own parliament rather than to express the incredulity that the nonsense demanded”.

Former PM Gordon Brown accused the SNP of “dining out” on ideas of equality. “Myth or reality, Scotland has always prided itself on both its democratic intellect – equalising opportunities in education – and its role as a pioneer of a civic society built on the idea that if the strong help the weak, we all become stronger,” Brown wrote on the website of New Labour pressure group, Progress. Miliband also challenged the SNP’s record on social justice, reassuring former Labour voters a vote for him in the 2015 General Election would do more to tackle inequality than a Yes vote in the referendum.

“Changing the way our country works and tackling the injustice we see is at the core of the Labour Party’s programme, and the contract we have set out with the people of Scotland,” he said. Proposals include widening the tax system with new 10p and 50p rates, freezing energy bills, raising the national minimum wage, getting young people into work and devolving more powers to the Scottish Parliament and local authorities.

Easterhouse campaigner and Yes voter, Bob Holman, a member of the Labour Party for 52 years, labelled the proposals “unclear”.

“More and more Labour MPs are from public school backgrounds while the number of working-class MPs is falling. While wages are falling and people don’t have enough money, a 10 per cent pay rise has been proposed for MPs. This is not the kind of Labour Party I joined many years ago. My hope is an independent Labour Party in an independent Scotland would have a more socialist programme, and recognise the struggle for equality, as Keir Hardie intended when he founded the party,” he said.

If Labour is to rebuild, then, how does the party reinvigorate the support among traditional supporters like Holman, but remain electable in more right-leaning areas of the country? Some evidence from the European election results suggested UKIP had gained votes from Labour supporters as well as Conservatives, and Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s book, Revolt on the Right, suggests as many as six Labour seats could fall to the eurosceptic party at the UK General Election next year.

If commitment to the values of unity and solidarity is to endure, finding common ground becomes the challenge. With commitments to keep borrowing and spending low already outlined by shadow chancellor Ed Balls, alongside an apparent endorsement of the Coalition’s cap on benefits, a Labour government will be faced with difficult decisions, like how to deal with spiralling health and social care costs.

Kezia Dugdale MSP believes engagement with community activists is vital, pointing to plans to devolve decision making to council and community level as a good way to reconnect with those values. In Scotland, decisions on job creation and further education planning would be taken by local authorities. “I went and did a youth jobs fair at Wester Hailes’ jobcentre and I met a guy that day who was 20 and was asking me, because he thought I was one of the staff there rather than an MSP, how he could get an apprenticeship as a mechanic.

He was like, ‘I’ve done two years working in a garage just helping out, but I can’t get an apprenticeship and everyone’s telling me I’m too old’ because ‘Opportunities for All’ is the 16-19 year old agenda and steers all the money there. Imagine being 20 and being told you’re too old for something. Whereas if you had a system which was focused, you had that guy, he came out of school, had a job for a wee while, he’s fallen out of work, what can we do to get him back?”

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmour believes councils must also be empowered by investment in housing. Scotland’s historically large share of social housing has fallen by 17 percentage points in the last 20 years, and the rise of the private rented sector has led to a higher housing benefit bill. As Gilmour took a break from knocking on doors for the referendum to return to London for a vote on the ‘bedroom tax’, she said: “The irony is the government’s imposed this very draconian policy on certain people, but at the same time, year on year even under their watch, housing benefit spend is going up. So having punished a few people for daring to have a spare bedroom they’re not actually tackling the underlying cause at all.”

A shift from subsidising rents to subsidising bricks and mortar is required, she argues, but is hampered by the fact the former is via central government and the latter via Scottish Government grants to housing associations, while councils remain ultimately responsible for the system. “We’re constantly told [in Scotland] we’ve the best homeless legislation in Europe, but it doesn’t actually produce any houses. It produces a right to get temporary accommodation for even more people.” Giving councils control would allow them to buy more housing stock, she argues.

“The way I see it, devolution of housing benefit is the route to go down, but if you’re not going to devolve it entirely then another option would be to say you can get additional investment if you can demonstrate very clearly that you have a plan. If you were either building or buying a certain number of properties every year and at the same time you reduced the number of people in temporary accommodation, you gain the benefit from that.”

Devolution within the party, too, has been suggested. John Denham, MP for Southampton Itchen, said in his blog there should be an English Labour Party, “whatever happens”.

“It’s clear that if English Labour had had its own voice, England would not be the centralised nation it remains today,” he argued, adding: “England’s constitutional future cannot be determined by a UK Labour Party in which the Welsh and Scots have both their own voice and a collective say. English Labour needs to be able to determine its own future constitutional preferences before agreeing the best UK outcome with other national parties.”

However, Ed Miliband has said Labour values of solidarity are shared, and attempted to widen the debate from just further devolutionary arrangements. “The thirst for change is shared across the United Kingdom,” he said, promising both economic and political change would be “profound”.

Trust in politicians in general is at a low since the expenses scandal, suggests Dugdale, who told a debate in Edinburgh she thought Labour would reform the top of politics, including the House of Lords.

“On the issue of expenses, quite personally, in 2009/10 when that was breaking, I was a Labour party activist, imagine what that felt like, as somebody going out and chapping on doors to find all these people who you were trying to get re-elected had been screwing the system, bluntly. I would like to say to you I felt an anger probably just as much, if not more so, than you did,” she said.

Reform of British democracy would be a complex project, and specific plans have not been laid out as yet, but it would certainly flesh out the bones of Miliband’s promise to voters “to change Britain so it works for you, not just a powerful few.”

Whatever the result of the referendum, the task of rebuilding doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of the Labour Party, as was recognised by Scottish Leader Johann Lamont in her last speech before the parliamentary recess, where she said both campaigns had a responsibility to acknowledge where there had been unexpected agreement.

“We all agree the educational attainment gap in Scotland must be improved if we are to achieve a fairer society. We all recognise our NHS and our care system face real pressure from changing demographics and we must act and innovate if our sick and vulnerable are to get the treatment they deserve. And we all recognise the need to exploit Scotland’s advantages to create jobs and a better economy for all. We can all agree the people of Scotland want something better than what we have now. As a parliament, we will be expected to meet that ambition,” she said. 

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