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Why New Labour And Talk Of Austerity Must Go

13/10/2016 17:47 | Updated 14 October 2016
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It was no accident that Theresa May kicked off her premiership in July with a spot of cross-dressing. By passionately addressing ordinary working class families in her maiden speech outside No 10, she was claiming ownership of the narrative of her time in government. How can Labour steal this from her grasp?

Of course, it helps to have a large chunk of mainstream media onside to drip-feed credible myths to valued sections of the electorate until they're placated to the point of disinterest. Think "we're all in this together" of the David Cameron years. Give or take a few hilarious Cassette Boy out-takes on YouTube, it worked out just fine for Dave in May 2015. One might argue a little too well since he was subsequently unable to bargain away the promised European Union (EU) referendum in continued coalition having been saddled with an unexpected majority.

Contributing to his electoral victory was a parallel success in getting a second and age-old narrative to stick. Namely that Labour triggered the financial crisis in 2008 by overspending. Not true. Prior to the 2015 general election, the former Bank of England governor Mervyn King and permanent secretary to the Treasury Sir Nicholas Macpherson, even said so. No matter. Drip-drip. The spectre of Labour being at the controls with so much at stake was a significant factor in last year's defeat.

Back to Theresa May. By putting her tanks on Labour's lawn, it's clear the Conservatives believe - contrary to popular sentiment - it's actually a good time to kick a party when its down. This is politics after all. And with a favourable set of boundary changes to follow, Conservative Party strategists are surely licking their lips at the prospect of returning the Party to something like the electoral hegemony of the Thatcher years.

That's one interpretation. Conservative strategy could equally be a massive miscalculation if the myths espoused by Mrs May can be stretched to the point of incredulity and breakage. This of course is the job of Parliamentary opposition. And while the timing of the next general election is not in Labour's gift, the Conservatives have already foretold several years of pain, as evidenced by chancellor Philip Hammond's junking of austerity in favour of spending his way out of the fallout from Brexit.

And so to the million-dollar question: is Labour up to the task? Yes. As long as the party can fashion a compelling counter-narrative capable of turning Conservative strategy on itself. Implicit here is a twin compromise - outlined below - on the part of the Parliamentary Labour Parry (PLP) and Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. We start with Brexit.

According to a report by Channel 4 News on Monday, 10th October, almost three-quarters (73%) of constituencies voted to leave the EU. The reasons for this are deep-seated and long in the making. Of particular focus has been why voters from Labour heartlands in the Midlands and the North, opted for Brexit in such large numbers. In general, post-mortem commentary has coalesced around the impact of de-industrialisation, ensuing joblessness and the collapse of aspiration. This gave rise to years of pent-up powerlessness and frustration that was summarily discharged on 23rd May as a cathartic call to "take back control".

But opposition to immigration - far from being an awkward dead end on the doorstep - is actually an entry point for Labour's counter-narrative. Motivation for Brexit correlates precisely with the dire outcome of policy choices by Conservative governments going back decades. By 2020, the Conservatives will have been at the controls of central government for 28 out of a total of 41 years. That's over twice the amount of time spent in government by New Labour.

During this period, Conservative ministers have presided over a colossal transfer of public assets and public goods from the state to the private sector. In parallel, the growth of real wages (i.e. purchase power) has more or less dissolved since the late 1970s, while monetary policy has pumped up house prices such that the average first-time buyer now needs a minimum income of £41,000 in order to secure a mortgage, almost double the UK's average wage of £22,000. In response, households have been driven to take on massive levels of debt at the same time that job security and workers rights have gone into sharp decline. And all this while Conservative donors and those of high net worth have continued to pull away.

Of course, most voters do not think in terms of systems or modes of economic governance. Which is why the workings of Thatcherism outlined above need to be recast as the longest pickpocketing in history. So much so that the upwardly mobile of the early 1980s now look on in horror at the shrinking prospects of their grown-up children. In late September, number crunchers at the Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed the latter were the first post-war generation not to enjoy higher incomes than those born in the previous decade.

Buried in the two paragraphs above is the permission space that Labour's counter-narrative must unlock. Without it, narrower storylines and forward-looking manifesto policies - about the NHS, housing, education and transport - risk failing to synch with the wider public mood.

And it is here that the aforementioned twin compromise comes into view. The positioning of New Labour within the counter-narrative is central to disarming sceptical voters so that they perceive Labour as sincere and having learned from former failures. This must be delivered in the voice of the PLP. By way of example, New Labour can certainly be positioned as a brake on the growth of Conservative-inspired inequality but it is also true the Tony Blair-led project did not set out to challenge the pillars of Thatcherite thinking. It therefore offers little for delivering the much-needed economic and political settlement that Jeremy Corbyn referenced in his speech to conference.

Equally, Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership team also have a compromise to make. There is no doubt that Corbyn has energised politics and given the Labour Party a formidable election fighting machine in the guise of a mass membership and aligned social movements such as Momentum. This will be an invaluable counterweight to the treatment thus far meted out to Corbyn by mainstream media.

It will however count for little unless both tactics and language are fit for purpose. And that purpose is securing votes. So while Corbyn's ultimate vision involves stirring a lost a spirit of solidarity and community, Labour must embrace voters as they find them and design conversations accordingly.

Because the prize is bigger than re-connecting with former Labour heartlands. When Mrs May references working class families as "just getting by", she also knows that millions of families higher up the income ladder identify themselves in the very same terms. They might have a bigger house or God forbid a buy-to-let, but they too are mortgaged to the hilt and are wondering what will happen when the Bank of England starts pushing up interest rates? They too navigate the pickpocket economy and fume at the rising prices of things people never had to pay for from hospital car parking to a university education.

So when Labour speaks - at the national, regional and local level - it needs to explain how government has been failing families across the board and how this can be fixed. A continued pre-occupation with austerity won't cut it going forwards.

Rather, Labour should see this as an irresistible opportunity to unite and resonate with voters. If the PLP can reconcile itself with New Labour's role in extending the failing Thatcherite wave and Jeremy Corbyn's leadership can lift its gaze beyond the food bank, the government will have a fight on its hands. But wait any longer to cease hostilities and Conservative strategists win the day. There's no prize for coming together, when there's nothing left to lose.

Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, writing in a personal capacity

Marc Lopatin is a former journalist and a communications adviser to policymakers, NGOs and private sector start-ups.

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