Only Labour


Labour needs to think innovatively about public spending, so that the desire for fiscal credibility doesn’t come at the cost of public wellbeing. But although Labour has to work hard to win back the public’s permission to be heard, there are grounds for optimism: only Labour can deliver fairness in tough times.

In opposition it is easy to be principled, caring and compassionate, but unless you are in power, the truth is that you will have very little influence over people’s lives. It’s widely said, but not necessarily widely understood, that when political parties become comfortable in opposition, all the rest of our ambitions for greater opportunity and social justice are theoretical. As Michael Heseltine said in 1994 in answer to the question when will Labour win again:

“Labour will win when Labour wants to win.”

So how can Labour radiate our hunger to be back in power to the electorate? One of the key ways is by making and taking tough choices on the economy.

We must be realistic: the highest levels of public investment under the last Labour government will not be reached again in the next 10 years. But we must be clear that only Labour can really deliver fairness in tough economic times, because only Labour knows that we ‘achieve more together than we do alone’. Only Labour seeks to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few. This is why it’s so important that Ed Miliband has started to set out how Labour would make tough decisions on spending and get the deficit down.

To be frank, Labour has always been serious about reducing the deficit, but when we lost the confidence of the public at the last election, we lost our permission to be heard. We need to rebuild that confidence by articulating a compelling vision for growth, but also by setting out plans for public spending that recognise the changed country Britain will be by 2015.

Labour won in 1997 not merely because we had a great leader and a good team behind him, but because people had faith in our plans for the economy. That’s why the pledge to stick to the Conservative’s spending plans was important. Yes, it might have constrained our ability to get things done in the initial years, but until people wake up one morning and believe that Labour isn’t going to simply throw their money away, they won’t give us their support at the ballot box.

No matter how much we know that our public spending made Britain a better country in so many ways, the orthodoxy that the Tories have been so brutally successful in establishing is that somehow we wasted people’s precious money.

We do know how angry people are when they see the Conservatives in government wrecking the fabric of their communities and vital services with their programme of cuts. But even though oppositions are there to oppose, we won’t win back credibility with the public until we can answer the simple question on the doorstep – ‘what would you do differently?’ Part of the role of a successful opposition is to oppose the things we believe to be heinously against the public interest and in conflict with the values we believe in – equality, justice, help for the poorest. But a successful opposition must also inspire people to believe there’s a different route that they could take to the future.

Fiscal responsibility should be Labour’s watchwords. But Labour must also be hungry in the pursuit of innovation.

Towards the end of the Labour government, we were starting to look at programmes such as ‘total place’, which made agencies pool their budgets to solve deep-seated problems such as drug or alcohol addiction. They found that pooling their money and working together saved them money in the long term.

Let’s also look at what we can learn from the pilots of ‘social impact bonds’, for example in Peterborough prison where social investors are helping to fund an intervention to stop prisoners reoffending – saving the taxpayer huge amounts of money in the long term, but not costing them so much up front. Labour must champion those who extract the most value through public expenditure.

We need to set out the case for a three way partnership between a stronger civil society, a citizen-engaged business sector and individuals taking more responsibility for themselves and their families. In difficult times like these, people are turning to those they trust most. They need to feel it is worth taking on more responsibility for their families and their local communities. Not in a shameless ploy to hive public services off to volunteers, but to try and rebuild those all important bonds and relationships which used to exist in society, but through economic, demographic and social change, have eroded over the decades.

Labour must also think about public services. We mustn’t just value a swift waiting time procedure, but a reassuring hand held by the bedside nurse. We mustn’t just value great GCSE results, but also a young person who’s been given self-confidence to get through a job interview. We mustn’t just value councils’ ‘meals on wheels’ services, but the fact that they’re served on china plates.

None of these things cost much money, they simply require a change in mindset from what Geoff Mulgan calls the ‘delivery state’ to the ’relational state’. The Tories started to talk some of this language in opposition. Cameron said he was interested in General Wellbeing (GWB) as well as GDP. But just as they are trying to steal our territory on responsible capitalism, that’s all it is – a steal. Because in practice what do they do? Let the bankers get richer, fail to act on high energy prices, and cut benefits to the most vulnerable.

Our job is to pursue a vision which sets out how we would increase the nation’s wellbeing. Happiness is dangerous territory for a politician, but we know that those who are happiest have stable relationships, strong links with family, good health, and decent income. This is Labour territory and we must seize it.

Tessa Jowell is the Shadow Olympics Minister.

This is an essay from the latest Fabian Society pamphlet “The Economic Alternative”, posted here as part of our “Economic Alternative Day”. You can download the pamphlet in full here.

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