Knocking doors in Eastleigh yesterday I had a conversation that will be familiar to Labour activists right across the country. It began with the dreaded phrase “You’re all the same” and ended, more in sorrow than in anger, with the cutting charge that Labour stopped standing up for ordinary people in Britain.
The man in question was a wage-earner in his late forties, with a mortgage to pay, a child still in school and another at university. His wife works part-time on the tills at a local supermarket. He was worried about making ends meet, concerned that their combined earnings are barely enough to live on at present, as rising fuel and food bills outstrip the minimal increases in wages that they’ve had in recent years, and worried, too, that their pensions would be too small to live on in retirement. Most poignantly, he expressed his frustration and anger that the prospects for his children looked worse than his did at their age.
He is a Labour voter by instinct and tradition who sees our party as the natural home for working men and women, but his faith in our party was rocked during the last Labour government when he felt our language, our policies and our principles became decoupled from our roots and from the realities of ordinary people’s lives. It’s a very tough message for us to hear, and tempting to respond with a litany of Labour policies which supported and shielded working people: the minimum wage, tax credits, universal benefits, investment in schools and hospitals. But that list would not shift this voter’s conviction that the future looks less comfortable than the past, or that the last Labour Government did too little tackle the crisis in living standards, or that the current Tory-Led Government is compounding the error with catastrophic effects.
And he’s right, of course. As Ed Miliband made plain today in his important Bedford address:
“(Labour) made a difference. But it wasn’t enough. And the problem now is that things are getting worse not better…something has changed in the last few years. There’s less chance of promotion. Less chance of a pay rise. And prices just go up and up and up. Petrol for the car. Tickets for the train. Childcare for the kids. Deposits for a first home. The “squeezed middle” has never been so squeezed. And if we carry on as we are, it will be like that for years to come.”
We made a difference, but for millions in Britain – more a squeezed majority, than a squeezed middle – progress and prosperity have ground to a halt. And that stagnation cannot be defended or justified when productivity and output has generated increased wealth – but only for a lucky few.
As Ed spelled out:
“Hard as it is to believe, over the last three decades or so, less than 15 pence of every additional pound Britain has made has gone to an entire half of the population. While 24 pence in every pound has gone to the top 1% of earners.”
That distribution of our common wealth is unjust and unsustainable and the trickle-down justification of its alleged efficiency stands exposed as self-serving and broken. The challenge for this generation of politicians is not to defend the past, but to find policy solutions which deliver future jobs and opportunities, wealth and social justice, and more equally right across our society – solutions that deliver a fair deal for the many not just riches for the few.
Labour, led by Ed Miliband, is facing up to that challenge and today’s announcement that we want to re-introduce a 10p tax rate, is just part – though an important part – of our message of hope to ordinary people in Britain.
In practical terms, correcting the mistake on the 10p rate would benefit 25 million basic rate tax payers in Britain, 1.2 million of them in Wales alone. The precise amount would depend on how much we raise from a new tax on properties worth more than £2 million, but each of those 25 million could benefit by up to £100 a year –much less than the £100,000 set to go to millionaires under this rotten government, perhaps, but a clear statement of the different values of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. Through this fairer allocation of our nation’s resources, we are asking those with the broadest shoulders to bear the biggest load once more.
Only with practical and just measures like these will we prove once more that politicians are not all the same, that there were alternative, more just, decisions that the coalition might have undertaken in the last three years and that a One Nation Labour Government will speak decisively for the interests of the squeezed majority over the privileged minority. If we do that we can rebuild trust in politics and faith in Labour. Maybe even in Eastleigh.
Owen Smith is Shadow Secretary of State for Wales