Fixing Labour

Labour is on the ropes.

 Polly Toynbee thinks she has the solution:

It is Labour that has become the stupid party – dumb, directionless, depressing. That’s why the voters gave them that 24% sucker punch: it wasn’t about ideology, it was about basic political competence. As the Conservatives unfurl new policies for the next election, how can Labour oppose them? It’s a poser because Labour has no firm territory of its own to stand on.


Labour has nothing to say and no territory to call its own. Those who want to head back to an idea of “the Blair suburbs” which they fear they have lost should stop and ask themselves what exactly they intend to say on those middle England doorsteps. Um, well, more or less the same as the Tories, but we’re tired after so long in office, while they are fresh-faced and eager. It’s not an option, is it?

There is only one option – to start all over again, scorched earth. Do what Labour did in 1994 or what Cameron did in 2005. Begin by rooting out everything that has made Labour’s reputation toxic to voters – and rediscover everything that made Labour worth voting for.

Look at Labour successes – the minimum wage, child poverty, children’s centres, aid for Africa, free museums, NHS waiting lists, new health centres and schools well-stocked and well-staffed after those 18 miserable drought years of Thatcherism – there is much to be proud of. But all these were promises devised in the resurgent days before 1997. Has Labour still the appetite for anything as radical as its own first term? Can it recapture that insurgent spirit? If not, why would anyone vote them back in?

In particular, Polly thinks that Labour should concentrate on tax:

Take all the low-paid out of tax, taxing it from the top 1% who have done so well – a straight switch. Or, as Frank Field suggests, cut back tax relief on top pensions to the basic rate for all to raise £6.7bn. Pick a tax fight with the Tories, with a fog-horn signal that the broadest shoulders should bear most weight. Turn the debate away from the 10p towards a fairer tax system.

I agree with much of this. The 10% tax issue was a killer. If Labour isn’t for the poorest, what is the point of it at all?

In this country, political parties win power by first capturing the centre ground; and then by defining it as their own. You have to be “One Nation”, or you’ll lose. The genius of New Labour was to present the goal of re-envigorating the public sector and bostering a strong, modern welfare state as an issue which mattered vitally to everybody: not simply the very poorest.

The danger Labour now faces is that the Tories will take over that ground. Cameron is very close to achieving what Michael Howard never could deliver: making it “safe” to vote Conservative again. If they can convince the electorate that they’re welfarists at heart, but competent ones who might just also deliver tax cuts to Middle England, then they’ll occupy the centre ground.  If they win that battle of perception, people will simply forget that Tories in power will do what they have always done: stick it to the weakest, as hard as they can.  The next election will be lost.

A tax fight might take Labour part of the way to a fourth term. But it won’t take it all the way there.