Hope can triumph over fear
Since the last election many of our friends and foes alike have set two primary “credibility tests” for Labour. Do we have positive and credible alternative policies to the current Tory-led Government? Are we willing to make tough choices now to provide evidence of our capacity to govern in a fiscally tough environment? For many, these tests are seen as “rites of passage” to being perceived by a significant section of the electorate as a viable alternative Government at the next election.
Last week Ed Miliband and Ed Balls addressed these questions directly and laid the foundations for the hard headed but optimistic One Nation vision we will present between now and the election. A vision which will offer big changes to both the economy and the state and challenge the Tory assertion that the role of the next Government should be to manage our continued national decline.
There is nothing inevitable or desirable about the mainstream majority having their living standards squeezed on a long term basis or accepting their children and grandchildren are going to have fewer life chances than they had. Nothing inevitable about a country which is run for the benefit of the few not the many or a society where millions is spent on the costs of economic and social failure.
So what of the two questions?
Ed Miliband’s speech on social security demonstrated a radical alternative programme for reform in an area of policy which has profound implications for our spending priorities, the future of our economy and the social fabric of our society. He set out a framework for a new One Nation rights and duties social contract which places expectations on national and local Government, employers and citizens. Work for everyone who can work, which will cut the costs of worklessness. Action to tackle low pay and worker exploitation rather than leaving the taxpayer to pick up the bill. Investing in bricks and mortar again, not paying for the failure through housing benefit. Re-establishing the contributory principle even when there is less money around. Finally, imposing a cap on structural social security spending in every Labour spending review over the three years of that spending review. This cap will include the triple lock which permanently protects the level of the state pension. This programme for change is far more radical and deep rooted than this Tory-led Governments welfare reform agenda and is in contrast to their failed economic and social policies which means millions are wasted on funding the costs of unemployment.
Ed Balls made it clear in his speech that in social security and all areas of spending a difficult inheritance caused by the failure of this Tory-led Government’s economic plan will mean tough choices which will be non-negotiable and require iron discipline. The spending plans set out by the Tory-led Government for 2015/16 will be Labour’s starting point. However, from day one we are determined to set a new One Nation path for our country.
This will require shadow cabinet ministers to reprioritise money within and between budgets rather than bid for extra spending. It means some different choices we would make including freeing up the resources currently being used to fund the winter fuel allowance for pensioners paying the higher or top rate of tax. Ed Miliband made it clear reinstating the child benefit cuts imposed by the Tory-led Government will not be a priority, and we continue to believe it would be right to ease pressure on living standards by introducing a 10p starting rate of tax funded by a mansion tax on properties worth over £2m. In our first year in office Labour will complete a root and branch review of every pound the Government spends so we can ensure limited resources are ruthlessly focused on delivering our manifesto promises to the British people.
With regard to the debate about responsibility for the financial crisis, as both Ed’s said we cannot accept the spending and borrowing of the last Labour Government caused the deficit because they didn’t. By international standards both spending and borrowing were comparable with many other countries, and national debt was lower than when Labour came to power. Without the benefit of hindsight spending levels were reasonable and supported by the Tories. The financial crisis caused the deficit. It was not the deficit which caused the crisis. However, we have rightly accepted our share of the responsibility for the failure of national and global banking regulation although in any debate about the past it is reasonable to point out Cameron and Osborne constantly demanded deregulation. We have acknowledged that the economy was overdependent on financial services and like every Government including this one we cannot claim every pound was always spent wisely.
Maybe, we should ask our critics on the right whether they accept when we left office our combination of investment and reform left the NHS with record low waiting times, crime at record low levels, and children’s centres, nurseries and schools which were giving children the best start in life with long-term generational benefits yet to be fully realised. Maybe, we should point out gently that so many of the commentariat who have sought to define our public spending as ‘wasteful’ are part of a tiny minority in our country who use private healthcare and private education for themselves and their families. They neither experienced nor valued the tremendous progress which was made across public services.
After only three years this Tory-led Government is tired, divided and has failed in its core mission to deliver economic recovery. A weak David Cameron has been forced to vacate the centre ground, a victim of his own failure to change his party, reduced to pandering to the Eurosceptics and tea party tendency who despise their Lib Dem coalition partners and party leadership in equal measure. The disillusioned hardworking mainstream majority are now looking for an alternative which can offer them hope for a fairer and more prosperous future. But hope based on honesty about the scale of the challenges and the nature of the choices a responsible One Nation Government will have to make. Last week in directly responding to the credibility tests we have been set Ed Miliband and Ed Balls set out that alternative approach. At the next election the British people will face a choice between One Nation Labour hope and Tory fear. Last week we began to show them why choosing hope is not a reckless gamble but an investment in a shared national mission to overcome today’s challenges and secure a better tomorrow.
Ivan Lewis MP
This article first appeared on LabourList on 14th June 2013.