It’s unfashionable to talk about the battle for the centre ground these days. The fight to win political credibility is conducted through a new prism. Populists versus the establishment, centralisers versus decentralisers, radicals versus those in favour of shrinking the offer. But the fundamentals remain the same, and much of the hard-fought credibility that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown earned during Labour’s three General Election victories is now the target of sustained Tory fire. And my worry is that Labour’s not taking it seriously enough.
The last Tory Government used to speak in strident, right wing terms. ‘Unemployment is a price worth paying’, ‘the homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera’ are some of the most memorable examples. So when Michael Gove calls the Conservatives ‘the party of social justice’, Grant Shapps attempts to rebrand the Tories as the ‘workers’ party’ and George Osborne champions the national minimum wage and full employment, this is a deliberate attempt to steal Labour’s clothes.
It’s easy – and right – to ridicule Grant Shapps’ patronising Bingo and beer nonsense. But this strategy, clumsy as it is at times, will eventually make inroads if it’s not smartly challenged. The sight of Tory tanks rumbling towards Labour’s turf is often derided as some sort of bad Dad’s Army joke, but they’re getting closer to parking on Labour’s lawn. And remember, even that most ridiculous of tank drivers, Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes, eventually made it beyond enemy lines.
It’s in this context that Tory manoeuvring should be seen. Osborne and Gove are challenging on issues that are home territory for Labour. They also have some policies to back up their posturing. The minimum wage rise combined with a tax cut for low earners demonstrate a tangible offer for many voters who would not normally consider voting Conservative.
We can’t be complacent about this. No one owns territory in politics. It has to be fought for.
There’s three ways to see off this assault. Defend our record in Government more – after 13 years most Governments run out of steam, but we achieved many great things. Strengthen, develop and build on our achievements – it’s not enough to trot out Blair’s ‘the many, not the few’ line. Soundbites need to be inextricably linked to policy that the public understands. And it’s time to send our tanks on to Tory lawns.
Immigration, welfare and the economy – particularly the fight to win small businesses over – is territory that the Tories think they own, but under any kind of scrutiny they’re weak on all these areas. We have to take the fight to them. Beyond the rhetoric their immigration policy is a shambles with huge Coalition divisions. How can you have a successful immigration policy when the Business Secretary continually undermines the Home Secretary?
The Tories talk about welfare quite a lot, but their record is abysmal. Universal Credit is a mess and the Work Programme an expensive failure. Labour understands the value and dignity of work better than any other political party. We have to get people into work that can work, and support those who are unable to work. The Coalition is often doing the opposite – and I’ve seen up close the damage they’re doing.
On small business, Labour understands the need to reduce the cost of doing business much more than the Coalition – who, let’s not forget, introduced the biggest increase in business rates in 20 years as we came out of recession. Many people would be amazed at the anger shown towards this Government by small businesses in even the strongest Tory heartlands. I’ve seen and heard it and that’s why I know no deal has been sealed with this hugely influential and important group. We know bankers and some of the corporates are not likely to be Labour champions, but small business is the backbone of this country and the lifeblood of communities. The fight for this vote is critical.
Labour has had considerable success on the cost of living agenda, as have many opposition parties over the years. It was used to great effect by Winston Churchill in the 1951 election. But I suspect it won’t be enough this time to win Labour the election on its own. That’s partly because many people expected to be worse off after the recession. The challenge now is to spell out how to build a fairer, sustainable economy not reliant on housing bubbles, cheap credit and a debt-fuelled consumer boom. This is the Holy Grail for all politicians and one where the Coalition offers very little other than some tired cliché about a long-term plan.
From re-designing high streets that have lost their sense of purpose, championing emerging new sectors, showing how technology can be better used to support communities and create prosperity to giving young people a proper stake in the economy and devolving powers to a local and sub regional level to allow smarter policies for growth, the vision to rebuild our economy anew has yet to be spelt out by any political party – and that’s why no one owns the future yet.
Of course, this is what the battle for government is all about. Who owns the future. And who’s best able to draw on their past to meet the challenges the next generation faces. Ultimately, though, it’ll be won on who’s boldest in terms of taking the fight to their opponents. To use a footballing analogy, no one can play safe. Grinding out results at home can only get you so far. Winning bravely away from home is where titles are usually decided.
Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale.