8 things we learned about Labour last week

June 10, 2013 10:55 am

Last week was a big one for Labour, with major speeches from both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband. So what did we learn?

1. Labour isn’t trusted on the economy – this one has been something most people have been aware of for a while, but our polling last week confirmed it. Nearly half of voters don’t trust Labour on the economy – and both Balls and Miliband know it, as evidence by their two speeches last week, both of which led heavily on future spending restraint (there was far more in the speeches than that, but we’ll come to it).

2. There’s support for a distinctly Labour economic plan (if the leadership are willing to make it) – whilst our polling last week revealed the extent to which Labour aren’t trusted on the economy, it also showed us that there’s widespread support for a distinctly Labour approach to the economy. Nearly half of all voters back borrowing to invest in jobs and growth. A majority want to see more borrowing this year to invest in housing, and there’s tacit support for renationalising the rail network too, to make it better and cheaper. The focus of the briefing was on spending restraint, but actually there’s still plenty of room for optimism in Labour circles – investing in jobs, houses and infrastructure are still on the cards, especially…

3. House building is back on the agenda – we’ve been banging on about building more houses on LabourList since the site was first founded, and the interest in such an agenda within the shadow ministerial ranks has intensified in recent years. Frankly, you don’t get Jack Dromey as your Housing spokesperson and Jon Cruddas as your policy chief is building more (affordable? council?) houses isn’t going to be one of your key policies. Both Miliband and Balls made reference to housing in their speeches last week, with Balls going into particular detail. Building hundreds of thousands of new homes is clearly Labour policy now, so two questions remain. Why aren’t we talking about millions of homes, because that’s how many we’ll need. And why hasn’t Labour made a bigger housing announcement? Is this being held back for conference?

4. Universalism is on the wane – both Balls and Miliband will deny it, but by pledging to cut Winter Fuel Allowance for the wealthiest pensioners and refusing to commit to restoring the universal principle to child benefit, the Labour Party is no longer an entirely universalist party. We can get into semantics about when benefits were introduced and whether or not they are items of discretionary spending, but regardless, universalism is no more…

5. …but Labour members won’t fight for it (yet) – but the downfall of universalism has been greeted with little anger, so far, from the party grassroots or MPs. There’s two reasons for that – because we hate being in opposition so we’ll take some pain if it can be sold as a means of getting the Tories out, and – more importantly – because if the next Labour government has billions to spend, restoring benefits for the wealthy would seem grotesque, compared to where else that money would go. However, if the Tories now use this as an excuse for slashing at other universal benefits (which would be true to form for the tactical chancellor), then Miliband and Balls had better brace themselves, as they’ll come in for real criticism for “opening the shit room door”…

6. Contribution is the name of the game - contributory welfare social security, which we’ve been talking about for some time, is going to be key to Labour’s approach. That’s good if it restores public faith in the system. But can we really applaud a change that makes young people (who have had little work through no fault of their own) proportionately worse off? Contributory welfare social security is appealing, but only if Labour is serious about Full Employment.

7. You’re going to have to work longer – retirement is getting further away for all of us. It was notable last year when unions started campaigning against plans to raise the retirement to 68 that there was barely a whisper of discontent from within the party. Personally, I’m reconciled, as someone in their later twenties, to the idea that by the time I hit the retirement age it’ll be somewhere north of the 70 mark. And when you consider that the vast majority of the welfare social security bill is already made up of pensions and pensioner benefits – and that’s increasing each year as the population continues to age – a rising retirement age is a mathematical no brainer. Then again, it’s easy for me to say. I work behind a laptop on a job I love, try telling people who have worked in a factory or a supermarket their whole lives that they need to work a few years longer and see what they say…

8. On welfare social security, the media see what they want to see (and so do Labour supporters) – perhaps the most interesting thing about last week though, was the difference between how the speeches were, on the whole, received by Labour audiences, and how they were received by the press. Whilst the press viewed the speeches as Labour’s conversion to the austerity myth, Labour supporters on the whole welcomed the renewed focus on housing, and calls for investment in jobs and growth. That’s because both we, and the media, were seeing what we wanted to see. The truth is somewhere in between. The media don’t realise that Ed Miliband is serious about wanting to completely reshape the British economy, but the party still hasn’t quite come to terms with Balls’ determination to make cuts and restore Labour’s reputation for prudence and economic competence.

The grey area between these two points is vast, and it’s also, somehow, where the party must pitch its manifesto.

  • Martinay

    Mark says ” try telling people who have worked in a factory or a supermarket their whole lives that they need to work a few years longer and see what they say…”

    What Labour should be saying is that lifelong learning will cut the pension bill.

    It will reduce the chances that people are stuck in repetitive jobs all their working lives and so want to stop work asap.

    Lifelong learning should be paid for by the employer in part. Including guaranteed paid time-off. It also needs widen horizons – otherwise you’ll never get off the production line.

    • Hamish Dewar

      Actually teachers are among the most vocal opponents of raising the retirement age. Many other workers including shop employees are happy to go on for as long as their health holds up. Not to mention judges, solicitors and plumbers.

    • PaulHalsall

      Half the population has an IQ below 100, a significant number one standard deviation below (i.e. IQ85). There is nothing wrong with such people, but they are not going to become major symbolic manipulators. As computerisation and automation takes over (as it surely will even in supermarkets, just as it has in car factories) there will be less and less work to do.

      We need to come up with ideals of satisfactory life patterns, including wages, that does not require full time work.

      Cf http://edition.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/09/07/rushkoff.jobs.obsolete/index.html?_s=PM%253AOPINION

      • Martinay

        Hamish and Paul. I don’t see how either of your points detracts from the need for lifelong learning that widens horizons.
        BTW there is an incentive to stay on post-65…, your State pension goes up for each extra year worked.

        • Hamish Dewar

          Quite agree Martinay, but Paul’s point is crucial.
          The challenge to the left is to ensure that the wealth created by automation and technology is fairly shared.

          • Martinay

            Yup. But not so much the challenge “to the left” but rather the challenge to a sustainable economy: a nation of redundant check-out till workers that have had no re-training or ongoing education is unsustainable (as well as unfair).

          • PaulHalsall

            Pretty soon, check-out workers will become as old fashioned and rare as bank tellers.

            And pretty soon all the nice middle class jobs will go the same way. Machines will be able to diagnose faster and more accurately than doctors very soon for example

            Honestly, the only job I can think will require manual work for quite a few more decades is plumbing (which is no attack on plumbers).

          • Hamish Dewar

            Paul and Martinay, the main jobs that will not be oboleted are those of the carers. In a just society, these are the people who should be prized above others. Their work will never be obsoleted by computers. Others in that category include creative and performing artists.

          • PaulHalsall

            I agree, but like many other people I don’t want to wipe up old people’s shit; and as a person with AIDS, I don’t really want anyone to wipe up mine. As soon as that stage happens, I will refuse meds except palliatives.

        • AlanGiles

          “there is an incentive to stay on post-65…, your State pension goes up for each extra year worked.”

          Again, that’s fine, if you live in the world of politics and non-manual Labour, but try working in heavy engineering when you are in your sixties and seventies and arthritis takes a grip (or, rather – loosens your grip).

          I agree lifelong learning should be available – indeed there is a University of the Third Age for those who are interested, but let’s not pretend that this is a cure-all. People who have done manual work might not want to retrain at 66 to become a Tesco under-manager or whatever cheap “jobs” will be on offer in a buyers market.

  • Chrisso

    I agree that “we hate being in opposition so we’ll take some pain if it can be sold as a means of getting the Tories out” and “if the next Labour government has billions to spend, restoring benefits for the wealthy would seem grotesque” and also the caution that “can we really applaud a change that makes young people (who have had little work through no fault of their own) proportionately worse off?”

    I think the grey area is making sure is expenditure is targeted and managed wisely. Billions were misspent last time on the ID cards, the NHS ‘choose and book’ databases, DCSF (ED Balls’ dept) numerous ‘guidance’ documents to professionals at hundreds of pages a throw, child tax credits and WTC subsidies in place of employers being forced to pay living wages, etc. It created jobs in the govt publicity departments but it meant our economic credibility was suspect. SureStart was a good but expensive idea and it did not create child care that young working parents could use.

    Housing associations, not local councils, are the best ‘third way’ of building and managing social housing. They should be accountable to local councils not national govt but they will be better fund managers than a local council housing department, IMO.

  • FionaUK

    Every time the Tories are elected they have a deliberate but unspoken policy of raising the numbers of unemployed: (Look at the historical stats if you don’t believe me). They do this to push down wages and working conditions in order to concentrate more money and power in companies. They are therefore responsible for the increased benefits bill, They also consolidate their power by demonising those who claim benefits.
    Why can’t Ed highlight this effect to the public? People are not stupid but we generally need things repeated a few times before we start to see the patterns for ourselves. Public opinion is very worried about unemployment and job insecurity so Ed should shine a light on this.

  • PaulHalsall

    I am not happy about this post, Mark, although I think it is largely true. If the Tories stick to a universal Heating Allowance, Labour will loose votes from pensioners who think symbolically not in terms of actual figures.

    Any attack on bus passes would lead to a complete destruction of service in much of the country.

    But most importantly stop saying welfare. State pensions are not welfare, they are paid for insurance, just like a private annuity. And while Social Security is much better than “welfare”, I suggest Labour copies the French and calls it Social Mutuality.

    • kb32904

      I’m not sure your point on Winter Fuel Payment is correct.

      http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/swc9cwenua/YG-Archive-Pol-Sunday-Times-results-070613.pdf

      Polling company yougov asked this question at the weekend:

      Would you support or oppose changing the rules so that Winter Fuel Allowance is no longer paid to better-off pensioners?

      Support for the proposal was at 60% in all age groups, including the over 60s

      As for using the term ‘social security’ – Ed Miliband referred to it as such during his speech last Thursday & as far as I can remember, he did not use the horrid ‘welfare’ term at all.

      • PaulHalsall

        I go back to FD Roosevelt here, who structured Social Security (the American pension system) as a universal system precisely so it could not be attacked by later politicians. That applies to pensions, the NHS (the NHS catches all catastrophic cases and provides the blood for private hospitals), education, child benefit, DLA, and Winter Fuel Payment.

        Many elderly people hate forms, or hate to be seem to be begging (many do not claim pension credit), so stopping the universal principle is an attack on the whole system of social mutuality.

  • terryec

    I think Mark has a different opinion than most, people are apathetic, they feel no one is in their corner, It is not easy to accept whatever Balls or Miliband say as we have all been sidelined for many years, since 2002 the average standard of Living has dropped considerably even through the times the city and industry was reaping the rewards of the New world order, You have to ask why a Labour government allowed that to happen? the simple fact is they had their head turned by the easy money, the working class didn’t matter the money is rolling in, now it isn’t rolling in and that same working class who were ignored and left by the wayside in the grab for wealth will again be the section of society that will have to pay, poorer through the upturn and impoverished by the downturn.
    Labour have offered more of the same the rich are still getting richer but the poor will continue into the 13- 14 and 15th year of getting poorer, Our leaders have not offered any hope just same old same old and I cannot see the core vote returning anytime soon, in fact I can see the lowest turnout in history at the next election.
    Yes the speeches last week contained some slithers of hope and I can understand we need to get into power before real changes happen but I go back to the last Labour government and they need to let their core vote know that they are a Party of the people rather than a Tory tribute band.

  • McCurry

    It’s worth noting that those with legitimate opposition to a rise in the retirement age are not the shop keepers and factory workers, but the bricklayer and steel workers. It’s heavy industry rather than mundanity that causes objection.

  • Monkey_Bach

    Abandoning universality is a terrible mistake. The Conservatives have been inching their way towards replacing the idea of a comprehensive cradle-to-the-grave welfare state with a minimalist safety net and now the Labour Party seems to have climbed aboard as far as this agenda goes. It would have been much better to have kept universalism and clawed back monies given to richer citizens who do not need them through the tax system by increasing their personal contributions slightly. I would imagine that the social security budget will now be continually attacked and salami sliced, regressively, with more means tests discouraging and excluding far too many needy men, women, and families from receiving the help and support they deserve.

    Eeek.

  • JoeDM

    9th point you missed. Labour will cut pensions if they are elected.

    • Monkey_Bach

      I haven’t heard anyone say that. Only that pensions* will be included in an overall cap as far as the social security budget. Which could mean anything.

      Eeek.

      * Pensions represent something like 48% of social security spending. In contrast Jobseeker’s Allowance represents about 3% and Housing Benefit about 18% of social security expenditure, so both of these benefits combined are less than the amount spent on pensions. Any government which want to seriously reduce social security would have to include pensions because it its impossible to make really big savings by only cutting or capping working-age benefits.

  • http://alexross.wordpress.com/ Alex Ross-Shaw

    You think it’s only this week we’ve learned that we’re not trusted on the economy? People have been banging on about it incessently for three years, surely? Same with point seven, which everyone has surely known for a long time.

  • AlanGiles

    Perhaps the BIGGEST thing we learned last week was, as the country at large gets more and more sceptical and worn down by Cameron’s “Age of Austerity”, the Labour Party, where two Eds are better than one, are rushing headlong to embrace it.

    Frankly, if I were a Conservative, I’d feel less and less concerned about Labour tootling around trying to “adapt” their policies.

    You are dancing to THEIR tune.
    (and lets see if this gets passed for public consumption!)

  • Sarah Grenville

    I’m a Labour councillor and activist living in Norwich. I thought it was really important that last week’s announcements were bold and inspiring. Instead they were tame and depressing, almost as if the national Labour Party are following the Tory Party line and frightened of the right wing press. To top that I felt Ed Balls was weak in interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight recently – hardly put up a fight at all [ in contrast to John Cruddas some weeks ago].

    Some informative costings from Ed Balls might have been useful such as ‘the winter fuel allowance currently costs ……… for wealthier pensioners, continuing it as a universal benefit currently costs ……….. so a Labour government couldn’t justify it.’

    Or are they anticipating the cut to restore Labour economic credentials? It won’t work if it’s just to do that because it looks like a copy cat policy, it’s betraying the principle of universal benefits and it looks weak.

    There was quite a build up to these announcements last week – after them it felt like a worrying week for national Labour. Activists need to be inspired not worried and depressed!

  • Daniel Speight

    When we talk about rising retirement ages we should remember we also have rising youth unemployment. We should be reaching a point in our society where machines and automation are able to reduce the amount (hours) that people work. That laissez-faire capitalism as practiced over the last few decades has not given our citizens that opportunity shows where successive governments worship of neo-liberalism economics has taken us.

    As social democrats we should be looking at reforming the system and sharing work and leisure in a fairer manner. That doesn’t need to mean that people who want to continue working can’t, but it would mean that those who want to retire earlier on the state pension can. Mark may well want to continue working into his eighties, and good luck to him, but he cannot be compared to factory or farm labourer.

  • markfergusonuk

    Ed M did mention this last week…

  • Monkey_Bach

    “…(Housing associations) will be better fund managers than a local council housing department…”

    Why?

    Eeek.

    • Chrisso

      Housing associations are private, non-profit
      making organisations
      that provide low-cost “social housing”
      for people in need of a home. Many are industrial
      and provident societies, but there are also trusts, co-operatives and
      charities. Any trading surplus is used to maintain existing housing and to help
      finance new homes. Although independent they are regulated by the state and usually
      receive public funding. They are actually the UK’s major providers of new
      housing for rent, while many also run shared ownership schemes.

      Housing association borrowing (which stands at approximately £40 billion in June
      2013) does
      not contribute to the public sector borrowing requirement. Housing associations
      are funded and regulated by the Homes and
      Communities Agency and are members of the National Housing
      Federation. The HCA is the national housing and
      regeneration delivery agency for England, enabling local authorities and communities to meet their local needs if given funding and lifting
      of the current borrowing cap. As part of the self-financing reforms that came
      into effect in March 2012, councils already took on a total of £13 billion of
      debt that had been historically attached to their housing stock. Meanwhile
      the HCA completed 27,000 new homes in 2012/13, and started on site with a
      further 41,000 across England.

      There
      is an appetite among councils to build 60,000 homes in conjunction with the HCA
      if the government chooses to lift the borrowing cap and housing associations are easily the most efficient way of securing new build in social housing and managing existing stock. Anything else you’d like to know?

      • Monkey_Bach

        Interesting.

        I appreciate your efforts (Ctrl-C Ctrl-V).

        However you failed to mention security of tenure in respect to Housing Association Assured Tenancies or comparative rent levels as far as such properties are concerned.

        For example when one local authority in my area transferred its housing stock to a Housing Association in toto rents shot up, more or less doubling over a very short period, which was very bad news for tenants not in receipt of Housing Benefit. Many stories also began to appear in the local papers featuring tenants complaining about the poor service the new social landlord provided, compared to the local authority, and how slow the Housing Association was in arranging repairs via private firms who apparently often sent out unskilled tradesmen who carried out sub-standard, botched, and sometimes even dangerous refurbishments and repairs to rented properties.

        So it’s definitely not a thumb’s up as far as every Housing Association goes I’m afraid. Least of all from a significant number of people whose opinion should really be of primary interest, i.e., the tenants themselves.

        Eeek.

        • Chrisso

          Thanks for your appreciation. Yes I prepared my reply off-line and the formatting was poor. Your one example was interesting. However one swallow does not make a summer any more than one council housing department does. I stand by what I said earlier. And yes, I have worked for a council housing department.

          • Mike Homfray

            I think there are examples of good and bad in both sectors. However, I think the best HA’s are the smaller ones who can specialise and develop particular expertise. the worst are the ex council behemoths who have taken all the worst aspects of council housing management with them and added them to the worst aspects of the voluntary sector

            Personally, I think mass housebuilding should be primarily led by local authorities although those who have hived off to these new HAs will find it difficult

            Certainly in this borough, we have a particularly dreadful association, and I would not like to leave anything at all to them!

          • Monkey_Bach

            Personally I would prefer to see a mixture of council and housing association properties built where the best social landlord was selected based on past performance. The main thing however is that social housing gets built in very large quantities as soon as possible.

            Eeek.

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