Will Brown’s speech today save New Labour?

10:20 am - February 2nd 2010

by Sunny Hundal    

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Bill Clinton famously said: “When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right.”

And he was right too. Similar statements have been made in the past of the Labour party: that it was as it’s best when it was boldest, and stuck up its finger at Middle England hysterics by forcing through a National Minimum Wage, the Human Rights Act, civil rights for gays and more. Not, of course, when it came to Iraq, 42 days, ID cards etc.

Anyway, today Gordon Brown is giving a speech at ippr, and it’s widely anticipated he’ll say something more solid about electoral reform. The impact of that on the electorate is likely to be minimal – I’ve said for ages the electorate has switched off from what ministers have to say. The further narrowing of polls is down to voters getting a closer look at Tory policies, especially those on the economy, and not liking what they see, not due to Labour policy itself.

Nevertheless, it’s amazing when you consider that with New Labour in such doldrums, Cameron is still having major problems convincing the electorate that he is the one. A hung parliament is still a pipe dream, they’ll win via the marginals thanks to Ashcroft cash, but a narrow win would seriously question Cameron’s legitimacy.

My point is: there is hope for New Labour in narrowing that loss only through one or two massively populist (and economy related) announcements. This back-and-forth about cuts won’t rouse anyone to go out and vote, especially its demoralised base. The Daily Mirror polls recently showed that Labour would be on 34% and Cons on 38% with a higher turnout. And guess who isn’t planning to turn out? It’s Labour voters on the left.

To illustrate the collective myopia on this issue, Luke Akehurst proclaims that Iraq did nothing to piss off lefties simply because Tony Blair got back. Sure, sooner or later the left has to move on – but that won’t happen unless the hierarchy admit their mistakes or are ousted.

Anyway, Iraq aside, my point is inevitably that Labour still needs a core vote strategy. Nothing else will get its voters to come out and support it, especially given Cameron’s Tories are so thin on the ground.

I propose adopting Libdem tax proposals and increasing the threshold of tax paid by the poor. And increasing the top rate of tax to 55%. Electoral reform would be nice but the pitiful announcement today won’t convince anyone.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments

Good article Sunny and good analysis.

Madness, Sunny!

Labour needs a core vote strategy AND a marginal voter strategy. The core vote strategy should focus on jobs and rights at work, not on the Lib Dem tax proposals which are a £17bn giveaway to the rich (raising the threshold to £10k gives £700 to every banker in the country). If you want to target the poor, increase tax credits. The core vote strategy should also bring in the single issue voters by carrying through real action on climate change, development, backing the ban, greater action on poverty/inequality.

But none of this is inconsistent with a marginal voter strategy which should focus on elderly care; highlighting the Tory cuts to Child Tax Credit, Child Trust Fund & Sure Start; further improvements for schools; a pledge not to raise tuition fees; etc.

Where I agree with you is on electoral reform: We should do it because it is right and will lead to a more pluralistic form of politics but we would be mad to think that it would gain more than a few votes. AV is not enough but it’s a massive improvement on the bankrupt first-past-the-post system.

All the best,


Unfortunately the electorate doesn’t give a monkey’s about electoral reform.

New Labour has had literally years to make the case for progressive politics and failed at pretty much every hurdle (minimum wage etc excepted – but they are exceptions to a general rule). The borrowing of Thatcher’s rags led us blindly into the greed-induced recession which is something people are bothered by. As is Iraq, as is the increase in inequality, the lack of NHS dentists, and a plethora of other issues. I know no-one – except for hardcore political types – interested in or bothered by electoral reform. Rearranging deckchairs, anyone?

Also: Any government which lets Mandelson back into positions of power three times is hardly going to instill confidence in anyone.

Luckily for me I’ve got a rebel Labour MP to vote for (Gordon Prentice, if you must know).

May I quote you for a moment?

‘Bill Clinton famously said: “…they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong …”

Similar statements have been made in the past of the Labour party: that it was as it’s best when it was boldest… forcing through a National Minimum Wage, the Human Rights Act, civil rights for gays…’

Strong and wrong, huh?


A high tax threshold does indeed give everyone an effective income boost if everything else is left alone. But there is no real reason why this would need to be the case. You could raise the basic tax threshold for the poor whilst lowering the threshold for higher rates – thus ensuring that the “bankers” are deprived of their £700 windfall.

The problem with tax credits – admirable as they are in some ways – is that they are so complicated.

They work off the paradigm that everyone should earn the market rate for their labour and the state will then tax people and pay them benefit as necessary in order that they get what they “deserve”. That is a legitimate point of view but the argument is slightly circular. Under this argument, the “market value” of certain types of labour is so low that it will not support a decent lifestyle – hence the need for a minimum wage.

However, it is also possible to argue that the market value of certain types of labour is as low as it is in part because tax credits and other benefits will top up the difference.

If the answer to every low pay problem is always to fiddle with the benefits system, you end up with a system that becomes ever more complex and which must know ever more about beneficiaries lives in order to operate – which in turn creates a climate of suspicion between the state and those in receipt of benefits – one manifestation of which are the campaigns against benefit fraud that were so ubiquitous in my part of London, right up until the expenses row started.

Surely we should start from the premise that it is better for people to earn a living wage in the first place than that they should earn a pittance, be taxed upon it and then get given their tax back if they meet certain criteria. And if you do manage to get a few extra hours and a bit of extra money, you’ll have to complete a great deal of paperwork in order to avoid being labelled a benefit cheat.

If you don’t earn a living wage then it makes no sense for the state to charge you income tax. The simplicity of that logic is the best thing about the Lib Dem proposals and would be reason enough in and of itself to vote for them.

6. George W Potter

So, you want Labour to adopt LibDem proposals? Why not just vote Lib Dem then instead of voting for a government which has been, quite frankly, crap?

Will – I don’t understand tax credits properly and I’m not alone. I don’t think expanding them helps to be honest because the tax system gets more complicated. That is not progressive. What is wrong with raising the threshhold and increasing the top rate? Furthermore – it may give some money to bankers but it will disproportionately help the poorer.

I agree with core vote while not ignoring marginal voters – but all of what you’ve suggested would be attractive to both sets.

But you still need some big policy otherwise any tinkering here and there on issues convinces no one.

George – me voting Libdem (and this might still happen) won’t change the fact that they are way behind in the polls and have failed to capitalise on Labour’s failures and make themselves the alternative to the Tories.

The Libdems will have to convince the electorate before they will convince bloggers like me that they can do some serious damage to the Tories.


The trouble with that is increasing the top rate of tax won’t bring in enough to raise the threshold without cutting tax credits as well – and tax credits offer people on low incomes (admittedly only the ones that fill in the forms, but this is still most people entitled to them) disproportionately more cash than raising the threshold would. Tax credits are not perfect but they do get significant sums of cash to people who need them.

The Lib Dem tax pledge isn’t so amazingly popular that it has helped them in the opinion polls.

I personally agree with raising the income tax threshold to minimum wage * 35 hours and raising the basic rate of income tax to about 24p to redistribute a bit of wealth from higher to lower earners while still maintaining the same overall levels of revenue. But I don’t think it is a game changer electorally. It also does absolutely nothing for people who are unemployed or on very low incomes.

If you want eye-catching initiatives, I’d look more at extending universal public services such as making childcare free – something which would really help parents on low incomes but also be a massive boost to middle income families who have to pay absolutely staggering amounts for childcare. Also good for the economy.

As a general point of strategy, as well, making stuff which people value free at the point of use is good for the left and bad for the right, whereas fiddling about with tax thresholds is not so much. Hence the enduring political benefit of introducing the NHS, and continuing popularity of child benefit, the state pension etc.

What is wrong with raising the threshhold and increasing the top rate?

Doesn’t raise enough money. You’d have to increase the basic rate.


I take your point that tinkering with the top rate threshold raises less money than a radical lifting of the basic rate threshold gives away. I therefore saw it as inevitable that the tax credit regime would need to be adjusted a good deal. I still think it is worth doing.

Since the tax credit system is complex it would take a good deal of care to ensure that nobody is penalised by the adjustment. I do not consider this to be an insuperable difficulty. What I am saying is that, even if nobody is a penny better off than they were before, the system would still have been improved.

Firstly, a system that taxes less and gives correspondingly fewer benefits is cheaper and simpler to administer. It also gives less scope for errors, mistrust and fraud – all of which are corrosive. Finally, it may help to eliminate benefit traps.

Working for money is something that Governments wish to encourage. For too many people in low pay, that simple message is blunted by the fact that earning extra income – especially irregular income – results in paperwork, a clawback of benefits, sometimes retrospectively, and an increased risk of being labelled a benefit cheat.

The tax and benefits systems would, er, benefit enormously from a radical simplification and this is an excellent place to start. The alternative is to continue to prosecute people for such vicious crimes as failing to tell the state that they are now co-habiting – an example specifically mentioned in the latest DWP ads.

Sunny, as to your comment that the Lib Dems have yet to convince you that they can do serious damage to the Tories, I don’t know your constituency but that’s crap. The wasted vote narrative is rubbish. A groundswell for the Lib Dems even in “unwinnable” seats shows politicians that people liked Lib Dem Policies and strengthens the case for some sort of electoral reform. Holding your nose and voting Labour will be taken as what it is – a vote of support for this exhausted fag end of a demoralised Government that has run out of ideas and been shown to be incompetent far too often.

Returning at least a little closer to the subject, I recognise that overhauling the benefits system won’t be enough of a vote winner to swing the election.

But then, if there was a single policy capable of winning the election and widely agreed to be thus capable then we wouldn’t be talking about it – it would be in everyone’s manifesto already.

Silly me, I just think politicians should fill their manifestos with the best policies they can and then explain them. Obviously, the real fun is in sitting on top of a huge, massively disorganised and contradictory programme, stuffed full of private fiefdoms and greed and calling it centrism and common sense. You agree the bulk of these matters with your sole credible opponent and then compete for the election by calling your opposite number one-eyed, posh, Scottish, rubbery or whatever.

Don – woulnd’t offering free childcare cost just as raising the tax threshold?

also, it’s not won them lots of votes, but I think there’s other reasons for that. I bet most people don’t even know Libdem tax policy

14. Alisdair Cameron

Look, let’s put it plainly: it doesn’t matter that Brown can’t put a coherent message together/construct a narrative:he’s just too tainted, so it barely matters what he says (nor whatever machinations Mandelson produces,contradicting himself week on week). The whole point about (New) Labour being in the doldrums is their track record, with few positives to put against the huge negatives, and more tellingly the emotional,visceral responses from those who’ve been betrayed,taken for granted thensold down the river and generally crapped on by New labour. For as long as it’s the same tired,double-talking old faces at the top of the party, promising that this time they’ll be radical and socially fair, with 13 years of evidence to the contrary, they are toast.
It’s not about the messages from any of the parties, hence the lack of enthusiasm for the Tories or LibDems, but the disillusionment with the personnel, their weakness,incompetence,superciliousness and authoritarianism.
None of the parties’ spun messages carry and weight or are given much credence: it’s all about the mood and perception of their personnel. NewLab have shown themselves during their 13 years in the spotlight to be too full of careerist,unprincipled and mendacious shits. The Tories and LibDems haven’t been in the public eye to the same degree, but that’s the burden that accompanies being in Government: NewLab are familiar to the voters and disliked.

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