The case for gradualism (or why it’s worth taking Nuneaton with you)

One of the most infuriating memes of this leadership election is the claim that three out of four candidates are ‘Tory-lite’. The fact that the gap between Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron is titanic doesn’t mean the gap between Liz Kendall and David Cameron doesn’t exist. It’s real and it’s large: and people’s lives are transformed or wrecked within that gap. Jeremy came into the contest saying he wanted a broad debate: his supporters do nothing to help that by claiming that anyone to the right of Jeremy is the same as David Cameron.

Like Jeremy, the other contenders for the Labour leadership want to steer the ship of state in the opposite direction to David Cameron and George Osborne. They are talking about universal childcare, more rights for employees to influence the direction of their workplace, supporting union rights, supporting further education and finding money to protect tax credits. They want to both use state power and support others to narrow the gap between rich and poor in every sense: income, wealth, health, horizons, quality of life. They did not, however, go into politics just to wave a placard, or protest against a right-wing government, or preach the gospel to their activists and leave the public cold.

They’re right in that – partly because you can’t do anything if the voters reject you, and partly because life isn’t that simple. Changing anything is long, slow, gruelling: you have to set a goal, get people to sign up, repeat the same message constantly, check up on the delivery. It’s hard enough to get people used to a new company logo, never mind build millions of new homes. The bigger the task, the more undreamed-of problems you’ll encounter.

But with time and effort and will, you can change things – and Blair and Brown did just that. There is a tendency, when confronted by people to their left, for social democrats to reach for bar charts and graphs and tables of figures. I’ll make some apology for that, but only some. If you want to reduce poverty and put a stop to avoidable human misery, you have to care about the data and you have to be interested in the actual impact of your policies. If you aren’t interested in what’s actually happened to low incomes, don’t call yourself a leftist. If you care about the poor, you can find the time to look at some bar charts.

So let’s look. The IFS produced a chart showing the effect of Labour’s tax and benefit policies:

IFS graph of tax/benefit changes, 1997-2010

Corbynites would have you believe this chart is so unimportant you might as well have voted Tory. What it actually shows is a series of decisions taking money from the top 40%, but especially the richest, to give to the bottom 60%, but especially the poorest, on a large scale. That looks like pretty classic left-wing politics to me.

Now let’s look at their chart of Tory and Lib Dem tax and benefit reforms:

IFS graph of tax/benefit changes, 2010-19

You can see a kink at the top, due largely to keeping pre-planned Labour measures, but this is essentially taking from the poor to give to the fairly well off. It’s exactly the opposite of Labour’s record.

If you actually consider what Labour did, that’s not surprising. Working tax credit and child tax credit, higher National Insurance to fund public services (including above the upper earnings limit for the first time), more generous child benefit, pension credit, a 50p rate of income tax: these are exactly the sort of things social democratic governments normally do. The graph doesn’t, of course, show all the investment in health and education, Sure Start, the national minimum wage, the beginnings of childcare policy or a whole range of other things. And then there are all the other progressive things which wouldn’t show up on any UK bar chart – the advancement of LGBT rights, the Human Rights Act, doubling aid as a share of GDP and much more besides.

How can people possibly compare the last five years to the 13 years before that and then say there’s no point in a moderate Labour government? How can they possibly consider the most redistributive government in decades and then say it was just Tory-lite? Half the Corbynites’ rage is (rightly) directed at Cameron and Osborne’s attacks on the very things New Labour created: tax credits, Sure Start, extra help for families with children. But Labour was only ever able to do any of that because it met the electorate on their ground and won them over. If we cannot do that, raging is all we’ll have left to us.

When you win an election, you win political capital. Then you can use it to move politics your way. If you’re clever, you try and co-opt some of the areas where your opponents struck a chord too. Did the Tories call George Osborne ‘Labour-lite’ because he pretended to bring in a living wage? Did they lay into him for changing the rules on non-doms? No: they know they’re winning broader consent for shrinking the state. They get the art of democratic politics: a constant push-and-pull between what you ideally want, what the electorate will let you do and what’s practically possible.

And in government, Labour changed the weather too. Why did the Tories pledge to protect the NHS and not law and order – not just in 2010, but 2015 too? Why did they feel the need to raise the minimum wage? Why do we have 0.7% of GDP in aid now? Why do we have equal marriage? By 2010, it wasn’t OK not to protect the NHS; it wasn’t OK to sound openly anti-gay rights; protecting aid was a badge of Tory respectability. Labour governments made that true. Labour oppositions did not.

Owen Jones explains that the hard left is ‘defending New Labour’s legacy’. Great. So why is it simultaneously telling us none of it matters?

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