Labour can and should attract support with a bold, popular programme

Andrew Scattergood

Today, Rishi Sunak plunged millions of working-class people into absolute poverty and despair, worsening a crisis of his party’s own making. As bills soar and energy giants’ profits skyrocket, the Tories barely lift a finger to help, even cutting benefits and pensions in real terms.

Complex and opportunistic tax games – rightly called out by Labour – don’t distract from the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor will suffer. 1.6 million people are set to fall into absolute poverty in this country. By October, 14 million won’t be able to pay their energy bills. Meanwhile, banker bonuses have reached levels unseen since 2008, and BP have ”more cash than we know what to do with”. It’s a grotesque Victorian picture from a grotesque Victorian Chancellor.

In response, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves made some important demands, for a windfall tax and to scrap the National Insurance rise. But while Labour could be the voice for badly needed change, it’s passing up the chance. Instead of demanding our energy system be taken into public ownership to control prices, the Labour leadership’s proposals – while limiting some damage – would still see bills rise by hundreds of pounds. That’s despite the fact that public ownership is popular: a new poll exclusive to LabourList last week found that 55% of the public support bringing energy into public ownership, with just 8% opposed. What’s more, it’s cost-effective and vital for our green new deal.

While anti-poverty campaigners call for an 8% rise in benefits just to keep people’s heads above water, Rachel Reeves only proposes a 6% increase. For millions on the brink, these half-measures just won’t cut it. Where are the demands for rent controls? For public ownership of transport to keep fares down, as Labour mayor Andy Burnham is doing in Manchester? To tax the rich so those with the broadest shoulders pay?

In 2017, with a public sick of Tory austerity, we polarised the election around a populist, “for the many, not the few” theme. With the Conservatives patronising nurses about a “magic money tree”, and Labour offering common-sense socialist policies, we won the biggest increase in our vote share since 1945. We put politics on our terrain and forced the Tories on the defensive. Now, Labour seems scared of its own shadow and contemptuous of its own base.

There is an alternative, and its name is socialism. In recent days, Socialist Campaign Group Labour MPs, led by former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, issued a series of policy demands to help banish the scourge of poverty and transform this crisis-ridden economy, including public ownership of energy, a universal care service, a new right to food and new wealth taxes. It’s a programme to offer immediate relief, while naming a clear enemy and a plan to pay for it all.

Indeed, in the wake of the P&O Ferries scandal, we’re seeing an outpouring of class consciousness which could be harnessed against the Tories and their out-of-touch toff leaders. Together with bills rising 14 times faster than wages, the time couldn’t be riper to demand trade unions are unshackled to fight for workers.

Let’s not forget, on this note, that in his leadership election pledges, Keir Starmer committed to a series of radical policy measures, including repealing the Trade Union Act, increasing income tax for the top 5% of earners and bringing energy and other utilities into public ownership. That Keir Starmer could be tapping into public anger, as he has dipped into with calls for a windfall tax.

It’s not just in our electoral interests – it’s democratically mandated, too. Last year, Labour conference voted strongly in favour of radical policy measures including public ownership of energy and other utilities and a £15-an-hour minimum wage. As poll after poll demonstrates, these policies are popular, and we’ll keep fighting for them, in the party and on the streets.

With the Tories abandoning the people of this country in a Budget of ruin, the leadership could and should attract support with a bold, popular programme. Instead, we’re offered mere tinkering around the edge which fails to set Labour apart from a despised Conservative Party. The country is crying out for a socialist alternative to this Tory ruin – why won’t Starmer offer it?

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