Labour are finished

8 05 2015

Time was when I thought the Tories were finished. Turns out you can fool most of the people most of the time when you’re in power. But the general election result was a catastrophe for Labour and, being in opposition, they will find it far harder to extricate themselves from what looks like a terminal crisis.

First, Scotland. It’s gone. It is impossible to see how Scottish Labour can overturn the new SNP hegemony – their membership is on the floor, their big hitters have been wiped out, and they are unable to define any purpose to their existence. Without Scotland, it’s virtually impossible for them to win an overall majority, except in a distant Blair-esque landslide.

As a result, any future Labour government would probably be reliant on SNP support, at least for as long as Scotland remains in the Union. Tory strategists believe that the scaremongering over a Labour-SNP tie-up helped swing decisive votes in their favour this week. It’s a fair bet they’ll run the same line again in any future election where this is on the cards.

Also, a Tory majority government can now drive through the cherished boundary changes that the Lib Dems vetoed in coalition. Those boundary changes will make the parliamentary arithmetic far more favourable to the Tories – even allowing for the fact that on Thursday it was the Conservatives, not Labour, that spread their vote more efficiently. Tory boundary changes would make it much easier for the Conservatives to stay in power.

And then we come to the lessons Labour will learn from this defeat. Ed Miliband had long been – and wrongly been – tagged as a “socialist” leader; he was certainly more left wing than Tony Blair. So, after the failure of his leadership, it is inevitable Labour will now shift back to the right – ditch the “welfare” and “deficit” tags, reach out to business, and most of all clamp down on immigration.

Ah, immigration. One look at the Con-Lab marginal results and the large spikes in Ukip support leap out. Ukip seem to have taken chunks of support from Labour in key seats in the Midlands, North West, Wales (where Labour performed disastrously) and in the South. Much of the Ukip vote is a protest vote, an expression of alienation – but much of it is based on concerns over immigration. If Labour decide they need these votes – far more than the Greens achieved – a tougher line on immigration is inevitable.

A shift to the right and a tough stance on immigrants will alienate many on the left of the political spectrum who held their nose just to vote for “Red Ed”. It would come just as the historic funding and membership links with the trade unions end. The ever shrinking coalition of voters assembled around Labour would fracture just as the party needed it to solidify and expand.

So where are Labour’s votes to come from? If they court the Ukip vote, they risk losing the ground they’ve made in multicultural London. If they emphasise austerity (their programme is already austerian) they risk losing their union support.

The centre of the political spectrum is fracturing as the centre of society fractures under the strain of our disintegrating economic model. It is becoming ever harder for Labour to triangulate its way towards a coalition of voters that will carry it to power – different parts of the population are looking for different things from different parties as the two-party binary fragments ahead of schedule.

The Tories can always fall back on self-interest and prejudice – there’s a ready market for both, and the Tories can deliver them far more credibly than Labour.

What can Labour offer? With its Scottish base obliterated and its old alliances crumbling, nothing more than permanent opposition.

We are headed for a very long period of unchallenged, unfettered, unrestrained Conservative rule.

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Friendly fire

6 05 2015

The Guardian led this morning with an explosive list of benefit cuts proposed by civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions last year.

The list of proposals is eye-watering. Abolishing statutory maternity pay, freezing benefits and limiting them by family size, yet more restrictions on which disabled people are considered “disabled”, ending major benefits for under-25s, even increasing the hated bedroom tax. They all feature on the leaked list.

The reaction from Labour supporters – actually, anyone who hates the Tories – has been outrage, but also a kind of “gotcha” glee in regard to the unspecified £10bn of welfare cuts the Conservatives plan to make in the next parliament (a further £2bn cuts have been specified, giving a £12bn total).

These people claim that this is how the Tories will achieve their £10bn unspecified cuts. Cat’s out of the bag. Tories caught red handed. So now we know. Etc.

They have clearly not read the article.

The Guardian reporters state it in the first line – the list was drawn up “in response to warnings that the next government would struggle to keep welfare spending below a legal cap of about £120bn a year.”

The report continues: “The documents make clear that some of the welfare money-saving options will be necessary because demand for benefits over the next five years is highly likely to exceed the cap limit by billions of pounds.”

In other words – the list was not in response to the Tory manifesto. The manifesto hadn’t even been written when the proposals were drawn up last spring.

So does that mean the Conservatives aren’t planning this? No – they almost certainly are. It’s what they do. The  questions instead revolve around Labour.

The welfare spending cap was voted into law in March 2014 as a Tory stunt to look tough on benefits. The law places a limit on how much the government can spend annually on benefits (except pensions and Jobseekers’ Allowance). The limit is set at around £120bn, as the Guardian reports.

The trouble is, the Tories’ savage welfare cuts have barely saved any actual money – our low-wage economy drives up tax credit claims, and dovetails with our housing crisis to drive up the Housing Benefit bill. So the DWP officials expect the welfare cap to be breached in the next few years.

But that’s ok – after all, Labour will get rid of the cap, right?

Wrong.

As the Guardian reports, Labour actually supported the cap. Only 13 Labour backbenchers voted against it, alongside the SNP, SDLP, Respect and Plaid (Caroline Lucas appears not to have turned up). And there is no commitment to repeal the cap in the Labour manifesto.

These proposals will be on the table no matter which party gets in.

Little wonder then, that Labour’s shadow DWP minister Rachel Reeves tied the plans directly to the Tory manifesto in her comments to the Guardian. If people think these proposals are part of the Tories’ £10bn benefit cuts, they will conclude that voting Labour will stop them from happening.

As we can see, nothing could be further from the truth.

One Labour MP who voted in favour of the cap, Sheila Gilmore, explained how it’d all be fine under a Labour government. Under the welfare cap, the government must either propose further benefit cuts, raise the cap or justify breaching the cap.

Gilmore wrote that: “Now of course what is proposed depends on which party is in government and whether they can command a majority for their preferred course of action … A Labour government could make different decisions, including explaining to the public at the time of the vote why spending more than the forecast is necessary.”

Oh really?

The Labour manifesto’s proposals on welfare are pitiful. With the exception of the bedroom tax, Labour is proposing to keep every single benefit cut implemented over the last five years – council tax benefit cuts, disability benefit cuts, tax credit restrictions. Only the bedroom tax and the tax credit freeze would be unwound. The individual benefit cap will be regionalised, so the whole country can share in the misery inflicted on single mothers in London.

In fact, in her comments to the Guardian Reeves boasts that Labour will “save £1bn by cutting housing benefit fraud and overpayments” – so expect more of the administrative bungling that usually accompanies such initiatives, with a few dodgy lie detectors thrown in.

After the election, the anti-welfare hysteria and propaganda among the media and the public that has marked the last six years will not subside. There is no evidence from Labour’s manifesto or its endless rhetoric about “working people” that a Labour government would “explain to the public” why raising the welfare cap was necessary.

Gilmore also claimed that Labour would bring the welfare bill down by reducing demand for benefits – increasing people’s wages, lowering their housing costs and living costs.

Is there any evidence they would achieve this? Again, no. They would cap rents and energy bills at current levels – but current levels are already too high. Their house-building programme is vague. They are proposing a minimal increase in the minimum wage and a bit of tweaking on casualised jobs and the Living Wage.

There is no commitment to bringing housing costs down, energy costs down, increasing council housing supply, or evening out the skewed bargaining relationship between employers and workers. In short, there is little that would actually bring the welfare bill down.

So, faced with a breached welfare spending cap, Labour can be expected to simply push through more welfare cuts. And that means the DWP list – which is far more brutal than even the savagery we have seen in the last five years – applies just as much to Labour as it does to the Tories.

Friendly fire – the same bullets, but shot with a smile.