Political Promise

Something old, something New, something borrowed, something Blue

In Jonny Roberts on May 2, 2011 at 8:24 am

Labour’s policy review needs to bring together the best of old Labour, New Labour, the view of Liberal Democrats and Greens as well as a sprig of Lord Glasman’s Blue Labour ideas, says Jonny Roberts.

Once next Thursday’s council elections and AV referendum are out of the way Ed Miliband’s mind will return to the task of building his party’s manifesto for the next general election. Miliband is not short of suggestions – they are flying in from members via the fresh-ideas.org.uk website and competing wings of the party are lining up to influence the direction of the party including Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour, the Purple Book-contributors and even a Liberal Democrat policy advisor, Richard Grayson.

Whilst the task of compiling, from this, a strong, coherent message with which to appeal to voters is hardly simple its far better to have thousands of ideas than none at all, for all the Conservative jibes about Labour having no policy set in stone they should be rather more worried that they have so many people willing to provide policy to help the party oust the Conservatives.

I voted for Ed Miliband in leadership election because I believed Labour needed to move on, and slightly left-ward, from New Labour, not toward Leninist communism as the tabloids would seek to paint such a shift but simply acting more radically in the spirit of our mantra: “Power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not just the few”. New Labour should not be cast aside as a wasted 16 years in Labour’s history – far from it, it must be remembered as Labour’s most electorally successful with 13 of those years spent in Government, but in the end it ran out of steam and ended up paradoxically both fearful of radical change (Brown) or intent on it without care for explaining the need for it (Blair).

Ed Miliband, more than his brother, seemed to understand that Labour didn’t just lose the crucial swing voters who shift from Tory to Labour and back again where the party suits its demands but something far more fundamental – it lost millions of working-class voters who should be the bread and butter of Labour’s electoral base and it also lost a large chunk of both the ‘champagne socialist’ middle-class and the student movement to the Liberal Democrats and even the Greens. To regain all these voters is a tall order but if it can be done by way of a manifesto which brings together this broadest church of voters then Labour could look at breaking the 1945 record by taking 50% of the popular vote.

So what can be taken from each of the competing voices facing Mr Miliband? New Labour or the Purple Book clan seek to regain the those voters who switch between Tory and Labour particularly in places like Reading, Milton Keynes etc. Richard Grayson will urge Miliband to either never again allow the Liberal Democrats to put forward a more radical left-wing manfesto than Labour or force them to go even further, into an unelectable ‘looney-left’, to do so could mean Labour winning seats even Blair never reached – in the South West and East Anglia. Blue Labour focuses on the working class voters who have not registered or not turned out for Labour, an estimated 4 million lost since 1997. I would throw into the melting pot ‘old’ Labour – many party members and certainly a fair amount of the working class vote would like Labour to defend the ‘big state’ ethos of 1945 rather than follow the Lord Glasman line which seeks to give Labour an answer to The Big Society. Each of these directions have their benefits and Miliband would do best to go ala carte – selecting the best of each to appease each voter base, luring them into a big anti-Tory tent rather than selecting one route more than any other and each have horrendous potential pitfalls.

When the Purple Book is published in September it is likely to call for the continuation of New Labour-style policies, appealing to the aspirations of ‘Middle England’, keeping the tax burden low and embracing business – none of this is objectionable. The next Labour manifesto, I would argue, should continue the path, started late on by Lord Mandelson, of actively backing areas of potential growth such as green technology (including electric cars) and the creative industries via a National Investment Bank. But wait, that’s an idea straight out of the 1983 Labour manifesto? The so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’? Alas, its time has come. That’s just one example of how the goals of the Blairites can be cleverly reconciled with the best of ‘old’ Labour.

In another area the 1983 manifesto might be able to answer the needs of Blue Labour. James Purnell argues in The Guardian, in support of the Blue Labour ideal, that Labour should move its welfare policy away from cash-hand outs and instead guarantee a job to all those unemployed after three/six months. I’ve long argued such a policy myself and by joining with an idea 1983 manifesto a strong and radical policy emerges. The ’83 manifesto called for the nationalisation of all job agencies, which they felt were exploitative of the workforce. I’m against complete nationalisation of any industry but not against big state institutions either; I think there’s no harm in letting the private sector compete with a strong state player. In this case turning the Jobcentre into a national job agency providing flexible workers for businesses whilst paying the workers a living wage and using the minimal profit on top to pay for the Jobcentre network. All those who claim Jobseeker’s Allowance after a period of say 3 or 6 months would be automatically enrolled as temp workers for the national agency. That’s old Labour and Blue Labour creating the policy of what David Miliband termed ‘Next Labour’.

Blue Labour calls for guarantees of housing yet New Labour would be against the kind of mass social housing building of old Labour for fear of turning back the clock on the aspiration of home ownership for the masses. With 1.8m on the social housing waiting lists across the UK and a whole generation struggling to save for a deposit home ownership is an already dying aspiration. Labour can combine the best of Blue Labour’s idea of home guarantees (As opposed to Housing Benefit), the best of old Labour (building social homes) with a twist on Conservative policy that would wow the Purple Bookers.

The Tories in Government have finally righted the wrong of the initial Thatcher policy of Right to Buy. By allowing millions to become home owners she did a great thing for a generation but by allowing councils to cash in, short termism was the only victor. Now the Tories are ring-fencing cash made from Right to Buy, something New Labour should have always done, to ensure new social homes can be built. The Tories are also thinking of introducing an earnings limit on social housing so that people are turfed out when they are earning over a certain threshold. This has the potential to split up the very community spirit they dream about with the Big Society and that Blue Labour believes, rightly, that the Labour Party should be defending. The Next Labour answer? Make the Right to Buy automatic, ensuring those who can afford a mortgage buy their social house, thus stay in their community, acquire an asset, reduce their costs during retirement (if they’ve paid off the mortgage) and, perhaps most importantly, generate revenue for building a new generation of social housing.

Ed Miliband rightly says “no one party has a monopoly on good ideas” and the Lib Dem and Green Party manifestos, it has to be said, contained some ‘fresh ideas’ for Labour to consider. Not least:

–   Mansion tax (though a wholesale reform of land tax or council tax would be more impressive)

–   Personal carbon trading (an idea floated by D. Miliband in government briefly)

–   Raising the tax threshold

The last point is one being enacted by the Coalition Government. Labour should back it and back the Tory universal credit but call for, in addition, a Living Wage (as the Green Party do) of around £7.60-an-hour which would significantly improve the livelihoods of millions of Britons, especially when combined with a benefits system that is simple and encourages work and a tax system that doesn’t penalise it.

Whilst the Coalition looks increasingly fragile its understandable that people are becoming impatient with Labour’s policy review but with so many interesting ideas flashing around its equally understandable that Ed Miliband will want to try and piece them all together into one, radical, comprehensive document that can inspire the nation. To do so he must not be pushed into the Purple path or Blue moon, instead pick and mix the best ideas and sow them into his own social democratic narrative, a narrative to win back the working class voters, the ones who went Yellow or Green and the ones who loved Blair but tired of Brown.

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