There was nothing subtle about economic policy under New Labour. ‘We are getting into bed with business‘. Fingers to the hoi polloi. ‘You’ve got nowhere else to go‘. People in their millions voted blindly for it in 1997. A significant proportion got wise by 2001 and placed their ‘X’ elsewhere or decided ‘None of the above‘. The message ‘politicians – they are all the same‘ went viral. Labour’s vote dropped from 12 million to 8 million. Another million walked away in 2010.
By then it was clear the New Labour policy was bust. Greed and criminality at the heart of the world’s banking system plunged the global economy into recession. But five years on that New Labour lust to remain close to business lingers, contaminating the Labour offer under party leader Ed Miliband.
Political discourse and commentary is polarised, you are either for or against the neo-liberal consensus. But examine Labour’s policy making processes and a very puzzling and troublesome state of affairs is revealed. The big bad trade unions, the scourge of New Labour’s business pals, are signed up to current Labour economic policy. At least what an account of Labour latest national policy forum revealed here on Left Futures in a piece headlined Trade unions vote against ending austerity in 2015. Strange, but true.
Yes, the very same institutions that are backing strikes and protests against ConDem austerity policies stood aside when it was suggested to Labour’s three-day national policy forum in Milton Keynes that Labour should not stick with Tory spending cuts in 2015/16. The central idea was that Labour needs to introduce an emergency ‘anti-austerity’ or ‘Growth4All’ budget to set its key economic policies in place as soon as possible after Labour wins the 2015 election with an overall majority..
Instant reactions tended to condemn the betrayal of those people Labour proports to represent by the very people who are paid to represent working people. More complex processes are involved. Those who want a positive message to be relayed to the electorate as soon as possible need to consider how to persuade the leadership sticking with ConDem austerity would be ‘mad’. That is how Polly Toynbee writing in the Guardian here on 7 February 2014 described current Labour policy.
Six months on ‘Growth4All’ thinking has not found favour in Labour’s shadow cabinet. Like rabbits in the headlights, they are all apparently mesmerised by the devastating effect of the Tories ‘Labour – tax bomb shell’ campaign that kept the Tories in power for another five years. But Labour under Miliband has already rid itself of the New Labour ‘no increase in income tax’ shibboleth (erected by the New Labour diktat ahead of the 1997 election and kept in place throughout the three Blair governments).
So how will Labour’s electoral opponents react? Tory campaign strategists are likely preparing their 2015 General Election ‘Labour – tax blitz krieg’ campaign already:
- Restoration of the 50p tax band (proposed by former Labour Leader Gordon Brown and his chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling in their 2010 budget);
- A £2 million mansion tax; and
- A repeat of the Bankers’ Bonus tax (again originally implemented by Brown and Darling).
Each of these devices is seen by Labour today as part of its tax fairness agenda. To counter the intense nastiness that will characterise the next election, Labour needs as many people as possible on its side now to carry its agenda for hope forward. To achieve that goal Miliband has to pre-empt the Tories on tax and be honest with the electorate now.
What is utterly tragic is that there was no debate at Labour’s national policy forum about this or any other issue. There was horse-trading over words to achieve a so-called ‘consensus’. What did Labour’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls reveal in his attempts to stifle debate about austerity? According to my sources at the NPF he admitted there will be an emergency budget. Of course, there is no mention of it in the party’s annals. That sort of dishonesty is what is weighing down Labour’s standing with the electorate. To quote Miliband: “We can do better than this.”
Peter Kenyon is chair of the City of London Labour Party and a member of Chartist’s Editorial Board