THE Tories expected to write a script for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour as a weak, irrelevant opposition. Yet, as they review the wreckage of their budget, they must surely know this is not going to plan.
Indeed, polling suggests some of their key policy proposals are now more out of touch with the British people than ever before — from benefit cuts for disabled people to the need for action to save our steel, to the forced academisation of schools.
On cutting disability benefits, the Labour opposition and its leadership can take a lot of credit for the government’s U-turn.
Labour strongly opposed and exposed these proposals in Parliament, the media and beyond. In a remarkable week, the cuts announced by George Osborne on the Wednesday had become “suggestions” by the time Nicky Morgan appeared on Question Time on the Thursday, they were cited by Iain Duncan Smith when he resigned on the Friday, and were then not in the Budget by the time it was voted on.
The proposed cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) would have left nearly 400,000 disabled people thousands of pounds worse off, so the importance of the defeat of these cuts cannot be overestimated.
As with the earlier Tory chaos and partial U-turn over tax credits last year, this did not happen by accident. The Corbyn-led Labour Party has continually and consistently opposed the Tories’ austerity agenda and is starting to shift the framework of political debate in Britain.
Our leadership debate last summer showed people wanted a strong, principled opposition on issues like this.
Jeremy has channelled that from his leadership campaign through to Labour’s parliamentary tactics, flowing from the strategy of standing up to the government more clearly.
Jeremy has slowly but surely prodded away on a number of key issues around austerity in PMQs week after week, gradually cornering the PM on a variety of policies and exposing the failings behind the Tories’ ideologically driven, unfair and failing austerity economics.
Steel is one clear example of this. Labour first put the question of steel on the agenda in the autumn, and has continually defended jobs in the industry and the need for a strategy for British manufacturing.
While the Tories have refused to recall Parliament and have given contradictory messages about whether the state should intervene to help keep Port Talbot going, Labour’s clear plan to save our steel clearly chimes with popular opinion. 62 per cent of the public — including a majority of Tories — supported renationalisation in a YouGov poll.
Over 149,000 have signed a Labour Party petition demanding that “David Cameron must take immediate action to act to protect the steel industry and the core of manufacturing in Britain.”
The consistent work shadow chancellor John McDonnell and others have been doing exposing corporate tax avoidance after George Osborne hailed his deal with Google a success has both been popular and laid the groundwork for a further political offensive on the issue this week following the release of the Panama Papers.
And while the U-turns on tax credits and disability benefits have been perhaps Labour’s most important and well-covered victories, there are other issues on which a strong, principled stance has made a real difference. In recent months we have seen the Tories defeated or forced into U-turns or delays on a range of other issues including:
– A Tory defeat in the House of Commons on Sunday trading hours, with Tory rebels and Labour preventing the gradual erosion of Sunday’s special status.
– A U-turn on child poverty indicators when, prior to his resignation and following sustained Labour pressure, Iain Duncan Smith was unable to remove income from the definition of child poverty, in an attempt to obscure the 1.1m rise in children living in poor households. Now the government must monitor levels of child poverty, which will rise further.
– A Tory delay on cuts to supported housing benefit. Three weeks after Jeremy asked Cameron whether he would carry out an impact assessment of his planned cuts to supported housing benefit, which thousands of elderly and vulnerable people depend on, the government announced it is delaying these cuts while they carry out that impact assessment.
But Jeremy’s leadership is important not just for how he has given expression to the need for a strong opposition in Parliament. The changes are far wider. The balance sheet shows that Labour is becoming a more effective opposition.
Labour is now unafraid to connect with the mass movements and civil society that form our country’s wider opposition to the Conservatives.
Jeremy’s first act as leader was to address a refugee rally in Parliament Square. He dispensed with convention by speaking in Manchester during the Tory conference, in support of the Communication Workers Union’s case on Royal Mail.
He gave a clearly pro-trade union speech to TUC in his first week as leader and over the recent Easter break received a standing ovation from the National Union of Teachers as he set out his opposition to the Tories’ expensive, unnecessary and unpopular policy of forced academisation of schools.
He has showed he will not be pushed around by the Conservatives over Labour’s relationship with the wider labour movement, and a bolder attitude to the labour movement can help to blunt the Tories’ attack on the trade unions.
Indeed, the Trade Union Bill continues to face defeats on key elements in the House of Lords and the campaign must continue on this issue.
Most importantly, while Osborne’s Budget lacked a vision for a better future, John (and Labour more widely) have a credible economic platform based on putting investment in our economy centre-stage.
Nearly all economists now agree that investment is not just the most important factor in economic growth, but outweighs all others put together. This is why, when Cameron and Osborne took power and slashed the last Labour government’s investment spending, it pushed our economy back into recession.
In contrast, Labour’s economic plan for a big expansion of investment in transport, housing and upgrading our broadband system is crucial in turning the British economy around.
Corbyn has been the leader of the Labour party for just over 200 days but he has already delivered significant change, not only in the direction of the Labour Party but in how politics is conducted. Labour has forced government U-turns which have benefited hundreds of thousands of people’s living standards.
With such an approach — of strong opposition to Tory austerity backed up with a credible, coherent alternative that puts investment in our future at its core — victory in 2020 is possible.
First published in the Morning Star