Things are going well for Ed Miliband – in particular with last week’s announcement of Labour’s Mansion Tax to pay for the re-introduction of the popular 10p income tax. In the run up to the Eastleigh by-election the Tories are behind in the polls and voters are angry with the Government’s cuts agenda 80% of which is yet to arrive. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are struggling as voters are questioning whether to trust them again after both revelations about Chris Hulme and broken promises on VAT, tuition fees and deep and early cuts.
So, whatever the result in Eastleigh, many people think that, if Ed continues to highlight unpopular decisions and the ConDem delivery omnishambles, Labour should easily win the race to the 2015 finishing line in its new One Nation strip. After all, unchanged boundaries, UKIP votes and poor support from minority communities for the Tories taken on top of economic hardship. And the old adage that Governments lose elections Oppositions don’t win them, seems to suggest that Labour’s chances are almost too good to be true.
But hold on. Pollsters tell us that the public believes Labour caused much of the mess and the Tories are “clearing up”. Cameron’s fancy footwork on an in-out referendum on Europe has thrown red meat to the Eurosceptics and will deflate UKIP. Meanwhile, individual voter registration will deflate Labour’s heartland votes and the Tories will gain lots of seats from the Liberal Democrat collapse. So it’s all to play for, in particular if those in insecure jobs are persuaded to think Labour is too risky due to past mistakes.
Strangely enough, contrary to the Tory Story repeated through the media, Labour’s economic record is strong. Despite the Tories’ success in delivering the Laurel and Hardy mantra “this is another fine mess you’ve left us in” Labour delivered unprecedented UK growth between 1997 and 2008. Despite Brown dropping a clanger in 2007 by abolishing the 10p tax rate, following the 2008 financial tsunami that hit our shores due to the earthquake of US sub-prime debt, it was Brown and Obama who engineered the Fiscal Stimulus. This transformed an imminent world depression into a mild recession with Britain even enjoying fragile growth by the 2010 election. Yes we had a deficit, two thirds caused by the bankers and one third from the Government pump priming growth, but that was the price of avoiding a depression.
But the Conservatives won’t let the facts obscure the Tory fictional bestseller that has given them an historic opportunity to reduce the state on the pretext of “clearing up Labour’s mess”. Their first move – to announce half a million public sector job cuts in the 2010 Buget – backfired with millions of public sector workers spending less and saving more hitting consumer demand, tax revenues and deficit levels. As workers lose full time jobs and take on part-time work the number of jobs goes up but economic output hasn’t.
However, with Labour distracted by its leadership election, the Tories continued to popularise the myth that “it’s all Labour’s fault” and Labour’s hard fought reputation for economic competence became a faded memory. Now, the public draw their own mixed conclusions from the political Punch and Judy exchange of “Labour messed up” versus “the Tories are messing it up” which does little to instil faith in either party.
The problem for Labour is the danger of reverting to the 1992 Labour brand (i.e. all heart and no mind versus and the Tory brand all mind with no heart). “Labour means well and has lots of good ideas for spending money but it’s the Tories who can run a business and look after the economy” said the focus groups. Floating voters voted Labour with their hearts in the opinion polls then voted Tory with their wallets in the election proper. Neil Kinnock’s pre-election Victory Conference in Sheffield helped floating voters fear the Sun’s spoof headline “Labour win General Election – will the last one out of Britain switch the lights out”. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner has just commented “Mean but smart Tories usually beat nice but dim Labour… but if Labour can morph into nice but smart?”.
John Major proved that the “Nasty” Tory Party can win, despite economic gloom, if the public don’t have confidence in Labour’s economic competence. The Tories’ lack of competence and compassion is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Labour to win. And in 1997 it took Tony Blair with Labour’s six modest, costed, tangible and achievable pledges to make the public think New Labour was at last a safe bet.
15 years on, despite Labour’s record of job growth, we again face a sceptical public and a difficult climb to the summit. And if the One Nation banner is to be planted at its peak then it must capture both the hearts and minds of the public. To do this One Nation needs to embrace a readily understood proposition that voters will recall and repeat on the doorstep and sum up, rationally and emotionally, why Labour can be trusted again to deliver a stronger fairer future for Britain.
“One Nation : A Future that Works and A Future that Cares” does just that. Labour’s historic mission has been to enable people to work to pay towards a caring society for all. That is the enduring essence of the Labour brand. The opposite – a future that doesn’t work and doesn’t care – is, and always has been, the TorIes. “One Nation – A Future that Works and A Future that Cares” is an individual expression of the strong economy and fair society that Labour aims to deliver and provides a crisp summary of why people should vote Labour.
More than that, the proposition acts as a compass for Labour policy proposals i.e. “How does a particular policy contribute towards work, public income and a caring society?” For example, to pay for long term care, instead of the Tory regressive £75,000 flat charge, could we have a progressive charge at 20% of the first £200,000 of property wealth and 40% thereafter. That way a person with a £200,000 house would pay £40,000 and pass on £160,000 to their family and a person with a £400,000 house would pay a fairer share? Or how about recovering the costs of expensive medical training courtesy of the taxpayer, with a 5% charge on the value of private work doctors sell outside the NHS? These would pass the One Nation policy test. So might encouraging neighbouring councils, universities and industries to work together on a city region basis as we are in Swansea. This week’s proposal that a Mansion Tax funds a new 10p tax rate would mean thousands of millionaires paying to help millions of taxpayers make ends meet and work pay is a totemic One Nation policy. It stands in sharp contrast to the Conservatives attempt to divide Britain between workers and shirkers in their bid to make the poorest pay for the bankers mistakes.
So the proposition “For a Future that Works and a Future that Cares” must be seen and believed to be more than Labour’s brand positioning. It must drive coherent and costed policy proposals, deliver on the ground and provide the blue print for a strong and united Britain instead of a weak and divided Tory future. That is the One Nation British voters want to see and will vote for. There’s just two years to go. Britain may be unhappy with the Tory and LibDems but Labour needs a simple and compelling proposition to shine light on a better future – One Nation united behind a future that works and a future that cares does just that and a Mansion tax to pay for a new 10p rate is a bold step along the journey to victory .
Geraint Davies is MP for Swansea West