The Labour Party loathes being in Opposition. They also loathe the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and are determined to replace the Coalition in 2015. How to achieve this was the predictable agenda of their annual conference in Brighton this week.
Their slogan was ‘One Nation Society’ but their speeches and policy announcements seemed to be those of a lurch to the left and abandonment of the centrist New Labour agenda which gave them three victories between 1997 and 2005. That involved living with free market capitalism and dropping Clause 4 in the party constitution that made public ownership a core objective. This week the conference voted to return the railways to public ownership as existing franchises expire and there were also calls for the nationalisation of the gas and electricity industries, to save consumers from being ‘ripped off’ by the big six energy companies.
Only once has the party returned to office at the next election following a defeat and polls suggest it is still distrusted by a majority with the management of the economy, so success in 2015 is a tough call. Focussing on the cost of living ‘crisis’, prices rising faster than wages, voters struggling to make ends meet and the ‘bedroom tax’ are seen as way to win. A Labour Government will abolish the latter, build 200,000 houses a year for five years, freeze energy prices for 20 months, and give £150 million to small businesses and free child care for working parents. They will also impose a ‘mansion tax’ on homes worth £2 million or more. To attract support from younger people for many of whom are unable to find a job, Labour would also lower the voting age to 16. Addressing the dissatisfaction austerity is causing, Ed Miliband says, “Britain can do better than this”.
Even those who welcome his concern for the poorest and most vulnerable and his desire for a fairer society and economy, will surely ask how is all this to be delivered without returning to more borrowing and debt? The aid for small businesses would be funded by cancelling a planned cut in corporation tax. Income tax rises for top earners are also likely, as are the removal of universal benefits for better off elderly people. The Bank Levy is expected to increase and banker’s bonuses taxed heavily. In short Labour will sting the rich to relieve the poor, but what will this do to and for business and industry? Energy companies are already warning of possible blackouts and one is even threatening to quit the UK.
A party member asked, “When will you bring back socialism?”. “That’s what we are doing, sir”, was the leader’s reply. If it is true that British elections are fought and won in the centre ground, Labour is taking a huge gamble. It remains to be seen how the Conservatives respond in Manchester next week. If they hold fast to the centre ground Labour may rue looking left with such abandon?