Harriet: I’m a fan but you got it wrong

Harriet: I’m a fan but you got it wrong


A message for the acting LOTO from Don Brind

I was proud to have been a member of Team Harman that won the deputy leadership of the Labour Party for Harriet in 2007. I admire her as a consistent campaigner for radical causes, championing feminism, equality and diversity in and out of government. Her politics is rooted in London communities – in North West London where she was legal adviser to the Grunwick strikers in the 1970s and in South East London where she was elected as MP for Peckham in 1982.

She has been a long-standing advocate of family-friendly policies arguing that what works for families works for the country. She had considerable success in persuading three successive Labour leaders of the value of this insight.

So it was with some surprise and sadness that I watched last weekend as she took up a position that seemed to me at odds with her own values by backing George Osborne’s plan to limit child tax credit to the first two children and a lower cap on total household benefit.It’s hard to see how the losers can be anyone other than working families.

She is absolutely right and has wide support for her broad view that Labour should not automatically oppose everything the Tories bring forward was. On the face of it she was adopting the definition of leadership put forward by my old boss, the wise and wonderful BBC political editor John Cole. He said part of the duty a party leader was “to chip away at the prejudices of their followers.” That was obviously what Harriet thought she was doing.

But he Cole doctrine of involves patient argument and assembling allies. It quickly became apparent Harman was short of some key allies, notably the people who are hoping to take over from her on September 12th. And ironically a wrecking amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill has been tabled Helen Goodman, one of the stalwarts of the Harman deputy leadership campaign, has put down.

Underlying the row is a dilemma about how to tackle the tricks and traps of the Chancellor George Osborne. Labour blogger Mark Thompson gloomily observed that the Tories had been clear what they’d do about welfare and “we need to accept this is largely what the electorate want … that makes a lot of the electorate a bunch of selfish pricks but that’s where we are.”

Harman reportedly told Andy Burnham that the election defeat meant Labour had “lost the argument”. For the next Shadow Cabinet meeting Burnham might like to take along a printout of Fraser Nelson’s Spectator piece which argues “Miliband lost the election, but won the argument on the minimum wage with “Yes, Miliband failed to win the election. But he gave the Tories the fright of their life during the election campaign … credit where it’s due. Politics is about ideas as well as power. Those of us who derided Miliband for so many years really ought to accept that he has, on this totemic issue, won the Tories over on a very important argument.”

Osborne has clearly been enjoying himself over the past few days and his vanity will have been boosted by an extraordinary piece by the Mail’s Chris Deerin headed “Things are looking good for Gorgeous George Osborne, our next prime minister”. . Deerin recalled his own thoughts as he watched his hero deliver the Budget –“good cheekbones. And not just cheekbones. Sharp hair, clear skin and an impressively trim figure. Majority government seems to be agreeing with newly Gorgeous George.”

The piece, which nestles happily among the Mail Online menu of celebrities in varying states of emotional and physical exposure, has a serious point. With Osborne, argues Deerin, “principle regularly gives way to calculation. From inheritance tax thresholds to the National Living Wage, from the Northern Powerhouse to increased defence spending, he is focused on using the tools of office to hold and retain power.”

I should, perhaps, confess my own rather different reaction to watching Osborne. He brings to mind what the aforementioned John Cole once wrote about another Tory master spinner Kenneth Baker: “I’ve seen the future and it smirks.” I’m also a believer in the adage that there are two kinds of chancellors – failures and those who got out in time.

May 7th was far an emphatic endorsement of Osborne’s economic record. The Tories won despite his failures on the deficit anf living standards. And his talk of a long term economic plan was a “mirage” said as Labour’s Seema Malhotra during the Budget debate. “The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that the Chancellor will miss his export target in 2020 by a massive £370 billion, ” she pointed out.

That point was amplified by the Times (£) which suggests that Osborne is quietly abandoning the export target which is key to rebalancing the economy from consumption towards trade.

Also in the Times Phil Webster notes that in far from cutting tax as he claimed, Osborne “will raise more than £47 billion in taxes through increases in things like the insurance premium tax, vehicle excise duty and dividend tax over the five years of a parliament. His backbenchers would not have known that as they cheered him to the rafters. It was only later that the figure became clear in the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts”

And Osborne’s spin wasn’t a huge hit with voters according to Peter Kellner of YouGov. Surveys immediately after the Budget and a day later when people had had a chance to assess Budget’s implications “suggests that the praise for his political acumen may be premature” says Kellner.

There is a clear lesson for Labour. Don’t to be spooked by the Osborne hype. The approach needs to be forensic and measured but there is every hope that Osborne’s carefully crafted and presented package will unravel.

Labour suffered a serious defeat on May 7th and whoever takes over from Harriet Harman has a huge task in establishing the party’s economic credibility. The Tories will do all they can to make the Labour recovery more difficult by pushing through the boundary changes and curbs on union funding.

It would be a mistake, however, to see the 36.9% of the vote that gave the David Cameron his overall majority as a triumph for Tory values. In fact, the programme set out in Osborne’s Budget is probably best seen as an attempt to do it fix the rather toxic Tory “brand”, revealed by a plethora of pre-election polling by Lord Ashcroft and YouGov.

That polling suggested that the Labour “brand” was stronger – although, of course, the sales team proved to be much weaker.

The new leader will, a la John Cole, need to chip away at the party prejudices, that operation too needs to be careful and measured rather than dump and destroy. The object must be to enhance the Labour brand – and then to sell it more effectively than was done in the last election.

Don Brind

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