By Paul Roberts and Jane West
As expected Labour conference fired the starting gun for the 2015 election. What was not so anticipated was the Miliband leadership’s announcement of a series of popular policies that are widely perceived as constituting a shift to the left.
The strategy rolled out was for Labour to position itself as the party that defends the living standards of ordinary people. This was a shift in strategy and a welcome one. It is based on a correct understanding that the mass of the population is now more animated by contracting real incomes – the ‘cost of living crisis’ – than the ideology of ‘deficit reduction’.
That this is an intelligent strategy is reflected in the jump in Labour support in the polls.
The re-positioning of Labour for the electoral fight ahead was reflected most clearly by Miliband’s headline grabbing commitment to a freeze on household energy prices. This is a popular move.
Despite the media hue and cry and frenzy from the energy companies echoed by the Tories, with blood-curdling threats that the ‘lights would go out’, YouGov polling for the Sunday Times showed 63 per cent support the policy and only 26 per cent oppose. Its polling also revealed that energy companies are even less popular than the banks. Just 12 per cent trust them to treat their customers fairly, while 84 per cent do not, compared to 27 per cent and 63 per cent respectively for the banks.
Alongside the energy price freeze, Miliband made a series of other announcements that address the same concerns on living standards, while also rejecting some of the most iniquitous attacks of the Tory/Lib Dem government. For example, axing the Bedroom Tax and scrapping ATOS affect small numbers of people directly, but are hated by a wide swathe of public opinion for their arbitrary unfairness. Overturning the NHS reforms to prevent creeping privatisation is hugely popular, and Miliband’s mantra that each time the Tories come in they destroy the NHS and each time Labour returns to save it exactly reflects the population’s perception of the truth.
Other measures promised similarly build support in key constituencies as well as the mass of the population: increasing free childcare hours, tackling zero hours contracts, tougher minimum wage enforcement, and the aim of increased house building by forcing developers to ‘use or lose’ land.
Labour’s post conference bounce in support, from 35 per cent to 42 per cent in a week according to YouGov, is clear confirmation that opposing the impact of austerity is popular.
This bounce reverses the overall downward trend in Labour support this year, particularly dating from Balls and Miliband’s announcement that Labour in government would stick to the Tory spending limits. Balls speech to conference reiterated this pledge, and Miliband’s own speech was also committed to ‘strict spending limits to get the deficit down’, both of which raise questions not just about how the pledges announced will be funded, but also what new cuts will be necessary alongside them. But these concerns – and their potential negative impact on Labour support – were successfully driven into the background by the ‘cost of living’ agenda.
Looking at YouGov’s polls this year (see Chart) – as its five polls per week provide the most frequent publicly available measurement of shifts in voting intentions – 2013 started with Labour support in the 42-44 per cent range. At the beginning of March it started to drop. Initially falling around two per cent following the Party Political Broadcast on immigration, support continued to fall through the commitments to stick with Tory spending limits in 2015-16 and to a cap on welfare spending.
From June it bobbed around the 38-40 per cent range – a loss of approximately four per cent of voters in just six months. It even dropped below 37 per cent, entirely eliminating the lead over the Tories, in the week immediately prior to Labour’s Conference.
The bounce in support after conference will have taken the immediate pressure off the leadership, and if maintained will hopefully vindicate and reinforce their strategy. If Labour keeps the focus on this agenda it only stands to gain, whereas moving on to the Tories’ preferred battleground – immigration and welfare – only benefits the right.
But this is the pressure coming from Labour’s right. Two significant lines of attack are well represented around Labour’s leadership.
Firstly, there it the old Blairite, economically neoliberal wing that wants Labour to fully sign up to the Tories’ austerity, cuts and privatisation agenda. That is what lies behind Peter Mandelson’s public – and humiliatingly ineffective – fusillade against the proposed energy price-freeze and Tony Blair’s refusal to endorse it.
The other pressure is from a wing of Labour that believes Labour must push immigration up its agenda to fight the Tories on its own ground. This notion pushed by ‘Blue Labour’ and others – that the party should vie with the Tories for UKIP voters and therefore adapt to the latter’s agenda – is both wrong and dangerous. For every UKIP vote Labour might win by a reactionary campaign on immigration it will lose five times that number of Lib Dem defectors, ethnic minority and liberal-minded voters whose support it has been regaining. The party’s recent announced restrictions on non-EU labour, which to many just means Black people, is such a reactionary policy and sop to this agenda that will have undermined Labour support.
Against these right-wing pressures support for action on living standards, against cuts and privatisation especially in the NHS is strong, not just among core Labour supporters and the trade unions, but very widely in the population. In fact the Tories brouhaha that just over zero growth means that the economy has turned a corner only reinforces the view in the population their living standards should be rising and austerity can be eased. Hence why the Tory conference has looked both ways this week, with Osborne stressing the continued need for fiscal vigilance while Cameron has hinted at tax cuts and other easing.
This gives space for Labour to widen the scope of its ‘cost of living’ agenda, taking the public with it. For example, conference voted to reject the public sector pay freeze, but the leadership remains committed to it.
Or it could go further to endorse policies against privatisation – not just in the NHS – agreed by this year’s Labour conference, which voted overwhelmingly for re-nationalising the rail franchises and Royal Mail if it is privatised. With public opinion moving against privatisation and a majority of voters in favour of renationalising rail, the Royal Mail and the energy companies, it is a good time for Labour to start talking about the failed privatisation policies of the past and point to the success of nationally-owned rail, energy and postal companies, as in France and elsewhere.
Above all, while Labour’s conference will correctly be seen as a turn to the left, its scope is highly limited by the fact the fundamental economic framework set out earlier this year remains in place.
Without re-examining and rejecting the Tories’ 2015-16 spending plans and their austerity framework, and a shift in economic policy to one based on investment, the necessary growth and jobs cannot be created. Without that a Labour government would deprive itself of the means to raise living standards and improve the NHS, the transport infrastructure and build homes.
In the run up to the 2015 election, the degree to which the Labour campaigns on raising living standards can only assist it gain support. In government Labour can only succeed if it delivers that prosperity, for which it will have to abandon austerity as the guiding economic framework.