Abi Wilkinson: Now Labour can fight the Tories on its home turf

Written by Abi Wilkinson on 24 March 2016 in Opinion

It's not just Iain Duncan Smith who is opposing George Osborne - the tide of public opinion seems to be turning against government austerity.

I wonder if Jeremy Corbyn ever sent Harriet Harman a thank you card. After all, she did more to help his leadership bid than Diane Abbott, John McDonnell or any of the other 'core group' of supporters listed in a recently leaked document.

As caretaker leader, her instruction that Labour MPs should abstain from voting against the welfare bill was intended to 'send a message' to voters. Foolishly, she forgot to consider who was actually listening.

Generally speaking, the electorate pays little attention to how opposition parties vote on individuals pieces of legislation — particularly when the next general election is years away. Whatever Harman had decided to do in this instance, the Conservative attack lines would have remained the same: Labour overspend on welfare and they can’t be trusted to manage the economy.

The people who were paying attention, of course, were Labour party members. For many, the welfare bill abstention felt like the final straw. A party that wouldn’t take a firm stand against an arbitrary household benefit cap — predicted to increase homelessness and drive many families into poverty — wasn’t a party they wanted to support. As the only candidate who defied the whip to vote against the bill, Corbyn’s support skyrocketed.

Obviously hindsight is 20/20, and it’s true that if Labour merely plays to its base it’s unlikely to secure the electoral win necessary to actually follow through on any policy promises — however appealing they might sound. At the same time, though, it’s worth listening to members about what they consider to be the party’s core values and priorities.

Most people who join Labour believe it stands for fairness. In comparison with the Conservatives, they expect a Labour government is more likely to ensure that everyone is looked after. Money will be redistributed downwards, where it’s needed, rather than upwards as it consistently has been in the austerity budgets of George Osborne.

On the whole, this is also why swing voters decide to go left. Labour needs to convince people it’s economically competent enough to be trusted, certainly, but the thing that sets it apart is that it’s seen as caring and fair. If perceived economic competence was the only factor influencing voting decisions, the Tories would be an entirely unstoppable force.

If Labour attempts to prove economic competence by supporting most Conservative spending cuts, it’s left with little to actively offer voters. Under a leader like Liz Kendall, the party may have found itself bizarrely to the right of Iain Duncan Smith after he slammed “unfair” cuts and Osborne’s “arbitrary” welfare cap.

What’s more, the tide of public opinion seems to be turning against government austerity. Even before the recent budget and Duncan Smith’s resignation, YouGov polling found that only 19% of people think spending cuts are fair and 57% think they’re unfair. Additionally, the percentage of people who believe cuts are necessary has dropped to 45% — the lowest figure since YouGov began asking the question in 2011. Perhaps most damningly of all, only 33% now believe the government’s cuts are good for the economy. Before the election the figure was 48%.

There’s space for Labour to fight the Conservatives on home turf - attacking the “nasty party” for cutting taxes for the rich while ordinary people are forced to suffer. It isn’t necessary to alienate members by veering sharply right in a desperate, doomed attempt to win over swing voters.

If the party advocates working-age welfare reform, it should suggest positive changes that actually help people who’re able to work find real employment. Cravenly supporting cruel, badly-implemented cuts is as strategically shortsighted as it is immoral. Fairness means that the economic burden shouldn’t be disproportionately shouldered by those least able to afford it.

Last week, a poll put Labour slightly ahead of the Conservatives for the first time ever under Corbyn. Though there’s a complex tangle of contributing variables, I can’t help wondering how much bigger that lead might have been if Harman had taken a difference stance on the welfare bill and the leadership contest had gone a different way.


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