Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Some thoughts on Labour's campaign

The importance of this election cannot be overstated. Voters have a choice between re-electing a government that since 2010 has done untold damage to this country and which will be led by someone totally unsuited to be Prime Minister, or giving a minority Labour government a chance to do better for a few years. The fact that the polls suggest the public want more of the same illustrates how close we are to becoming an authoritarian, populist (in the Jan-Werner Müller sense) right wing state where it becomes very difficult for any opposition to break through.

This post looks at some key aspects of Labour's campaign so far, in I hope a helpful fashion.

Tax and spend

One of the dangers Labour faces is that they appear to be promising too much. Voters are skeptical of manifesto promises at the best of times, even though evidence suggests that in the past most manifesto pledges are fulfilled. If you promise so much it is possible voters will just not believe you can do all this.

In contrast the Tory manifesto is positively frugal. But there is a reason for this, and neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats have emphasized enough why that is. Labour are not used to trumpeting the results of IFS election analysis, but on this occasion they really should. That analysis shows that one economic issue alone dominates the future of the public finances: Brexit. Here is the key chart

What this chart shows is that all these give-aways do not come close to matching the amount of tax we will lose if Johnson keeps his pledge not to extend the transition period. The reason the Tory manifesto is frugal is they cannot afford to do anything with any fiscal cost and implement a hard or no deal Brexit. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats can afford much more, because they are not planning a hard Brexit. 

Perhaps Labour and the Liberal Democrats are reluctant to talk about this because it is going over ground covered in the referendum, and most Leavers just do not believe the economic consequences of Brexit will be negative. Yet the IFS has considerable credibility, particularly in the media. Furthermore the sparse Tory manifesto is a tactic admission that, whatever they say, the Tories believe the economy will take a hit from Brexit. Labour and the Liberal Democrats should make more of this. 

Protecting minorities

Labour should not just be defensive on charges of antisemitism. These attacks on Labour over the small amount of antisemitism among members distract not only from the more extensive racism in the Tory party and its actions, as Jonathan Lis describes so clearly here. It also distracts from the rise of right wing hate-crime. That the problem is growing is pretty clear. Attacks mostly involve race and sexual orientation, but it includes attacks based on religion: mainly Muslims but also Jews. Commenting on the steady rise in ethnic or religious hate crimes Dr Chris Allen said:
“The statistics show that for the third year in succession, religiously motivated hate crimes have not only increased in number but have again reached record levels. While some try to explain this as a result of better reporting procedures, doing so is over simplistic. From our research at the Centre for Hate Studies, one cannot underestimate the impact of Brexit and the divisive rhetoric employed by politicians and others in the public spaces. Affording permission to hate a whole range of ‘Others’ – especially Muslims and immigrants – it is likely that the upward trajectory of hate crimes numbers will continue for the foreseeable future.”
The police say that the alt-right is the fastest growing terrorist threat in the UK. A third of all terror plots to kill in Britain since 2017 – seven out of 22 – were by those driven by extreme-right causes.There is nothing comparable on the left. One Labour MP was tragically killed by a far-right terrorist during the Brexit campaign, and at least one serious plot against another has subsequently been foiled. The alt-right is well organised at an international level

What has that got to do with this election? The rise of the far right did not come from out of the blue. Campaigns against immigration, and particularly for Brexit, have encouraged racists into the open. So has over the top language used by Brexiters. It has mainstreamed xenophobia, and maxed out on crude nationalism. The media, particularly the right wing media, are happy to give a voice to anti-Muslim writers.

What will the current government, if it wins this election, do when Brexit does not lead to any improvement in people’s lives, and indeed makes them worse? The Tory manifesto has virtually nothing about redistributing opportunities in a more equal way across the country, and Brexit will not help. If the recent past is anything to go by, they will blame immigrants even more than they do now, which will only increase the threat from the far right.


Do you remember pictures of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket? These came from the Tories towards the end of the 2015 election, when it became clear that Labour could only win with the SNP’s help. It wasn’t repeated in 2017, in part I suspect because no one on the Tory side believed Labour would do anywhere near well enough to make that attack line effective. I suspect they will not make the same mistake this time around.

The Tory attack was credited by some as helping Cameron get his majority, although I have no idea how true that is. But if Labour is attacked along these lines in a serious way in the final days of the campaign, what should they do? They shouldn’t do what they have done so far, and just say they will not do any deals. This doesn’t work because voters believe maths more than they believe politicians, and they remember the 2010 Coalition talks and the Tory give-away to the DUP.

What Labour should do instead is dig out one of the quotes where Sturgeon has ruled out allowing the Tories back into government and repeat it endlessly. If any interviewer asks why that is relevant simply point out in the most tactful way that the SNP only has bargaining power over Labour if they are prepared to put the Tories in power instead, and they have ruled that out because it would be political suicide for them. Not putting the Tories in power means they have no leverage over Labour.

The last week

The SNP (and of course antisemitism and law & order) are going to be part of the Tory’s lines to take in the final week, and they are likely to throw in a letter from business leaders if they can find enough willing to sign it despite Brexit. What should Labour emphasise? There is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. They could talk about

Revitalising the economy with public investment directed at the regions

Building more social housing

A Final Say on Brexit

Nationalisation and Free Broadband


Revitalising bus services

A Green New Deal

Saving the NHS

And probably much more that I have forgotten about. Talk about them all and there is a danger nothing really hits home. More than ever before there will be an intense battle between the two major parties to get the media to talk about the topic they want talked about. In 2015 the media chose the SNP rather than the NHS which Miliband wanted to be the focus. In hindsight that represented terrible judgement by the media, but importance isn’t their key consideration.

What works best in getting airtime is to present something new. It could be a letter on the Tories climate change policy like this. It could be a new statistic on poor health service performance which should not be hard to find, or some gaffe by a senior Tory (like this). They can always use this. These are also the two obvious issues to focus on in the final day or two.

On climate change you can say that we cannot waste another five years before we take serious action. This is aimed, above all, at getting out Labour’s core younger vote. The NHS will have much greater resonance with the Tory core vote, and might discourage these voters from voting at all. On the morning of the election the newspapers most elderly people read will be full of scare stories about Corbyn, so Labour needs concerns about the safety of the NHS under Johnson, Trump and Brexit to counteract that.


  1. Surely the problem of Labour is Corbyn. you could vote for them in the last election knowing they would not win.

    Not so this election

  2. A minor but important point, around the careful use of language and phrasing on antisemitism: in order to guard against accusations that Labour supporters are somehow trying to diminish the issue and its impact, can I suggest that

    "the small amount of antisemitism among members"

    is rephrased as

    "the small number of members accused or found guilty of antisemitism"

    The former could be construed in the same way as the ridiculous phrase "a little bit racist", whereas the latter clarifies that there is a small number of people whose words and deeds have caused harm and distress.


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