What could Labour do to make the Conservatives truly worry?
For the last few years, Conservative problems have been generated by their own side. While it doesn’t look like Labour will be relevant to most voters in the short-term, it’s worth thinking about what Labour realistically could do to exploit Conservative weaknesses.
In thinking about this, I’ve tried to be as realistic as I can. There’s no point musing on Labour calling for much longer sentences for certain crimes. Rather, I’ve thought about what they might reasonably and easily do that would make life awkward and difficult for the Conservatives with their new voting coalition.
Speak for England
While the Conservatives electorally dominate England and have for some time, they don’t self-consciously attempt to speak for England – and indeed worry giving English MPs more power over English laws would undermine the Union.
This creates an opportunity for Labour that would suit their current predicament well. Their strange activist base finds patriotism horrifying, so they can’t give a voice to any form of English patriotism, however benign. And their desire to make a comeback in Scotland means they must ensure they don’t look like they’re turning their back on voters there.
But they could, for example, call for an English Parliament as part of a constitutional settlement for the UK that was much more devolved – a UK Federation.
In an excellent Telegraph column yesterday, this was Nick Timothy’s advice to the Government. He’s right, and it’s a solution that suits Labour perfectly. It will give them the opportunity to offer a voice to the English, while doing the same for the Scottish too. Labour can turn to the work of their former MP John Denham, who has been making the case for England for some time, to do this practically. It would make the Conservatives look like they had taken England massively for granted.
Support the security forces
The Labour grassroots’ allergy to simple patriotism and their pacifism means they’re uncomfortable with many traditional institutions, such as the Armed Forces. Activists’ alignment with the BLM movement also means they’re sceptical of the police. In turn, this makes working class voters worry about Labour would be like in Government.
But there might be a way through this, allowing them to back both traditional institutions, while appearing to be sensible on security. This is by focusing on the welfare of servicemen and women and police officers – something which the public care deeply about.
Not so long ago, that would have been around ensuring the Armed Forces had enough protective equipment. Now, it might be in more publicly worrying about the mental health of those in the services and their post-service material welfare. It might also be about something as simple as a pay increase for police officers, who have endured a long and difficult pandemic on the front line.
Tackle social care
Labour are already on to this, with Rachel Reeves saying at the weekend that this was a top priority. It’s not hard to see why: not only does social care spontaneously come up in focus groups all the time, but the Conservatives have demonstrably struggled with this issue for some time. Voters still remembering the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto pledge on this.
If Labour can come up with a system where care costs are paid for by general taxation (spread across multiple revenue streams no doubt) and show that people will not have to sell their homes in their lifetimes, they will be in a strong position. This is where the historic strength of their brand will kick in: they are simply strongly trusted by voters on the NHS and care generally.
Be on the side of the working class on net zero
The more the issue of the environment has risen up the list of voters’ priorities, the less Labour has led the debate on it. It’s extraordinary how this has happened. But there is a massive gap for Labour in the debate: to develop a green policy platform that explicitly protects working class voters.
At the moment, politicians are spending a lot of time thinking about policies that would have a big bang impact on emissions, but little time thinking about how less affluent voters will adjust or cope. If Labour took this on, they could show they were getting into the weeds of policy development, while also showing they truly cared about the lives of working class voters who have deserted them in recent times.
It would give them the opportunity to question Conservative credentials here. The Conservatives are hugely vulnerable on this.
Encourage the role of local universities in the local economy
The public can be persuaded that English universities helped get us out of the pandemic, via Oxford’s development of a vaccine most obviously, and in turn that their innovative research is crucial to the future of the country (particularly outside the EU). People can also be persuaded that their local university is a massive, crucial local employer that needs encouragement and protection.
Whether this is fair or not, in recent times the Conservatives’ attitude to higher education and to universities has looked ambivalent. Labour could take up the cause of universities more formally and link this directly to the levelling up agenda – showing how, under their leadership, universities could spearhead local research and innovation.
This isn’t a classic retail policy, but it’s easy to see how they could develop a narrative around genuine local economic development that went further than, say, moving public sector jobs to the North and directing foreign direct investment to particular areas.
These ideas clearly aren’t Labour’s most potent political policies; they have many more popular ones that would move the public. It would clearly be more popular to pour even more money into the NHS, say, than call for an English Parliament. And it would be more popular to call for the nationalisation of certain utilities than support HE.
Rather, they’re intended to highlight how relatively simple policies would allow them to create political narratives that would be attractive to working class and lower middle class swing voters – putting the Conservatives in a difficult position. Such a platform would show that Labour understands the values or working class and lower middle class voters, as well as the pressures of their daily lives.