Austerity – Labour’s blind alley
Katy Clark MP acknowledges Ed miliband’s pledge to empower people, but this must include party members and must be open to alternatives to austerity
Ed Miliband pledged a fresh start following his election as leader in 2010 and famously promised a blank sheet of paper on policy. This has been followed up with a policy review which has been ongoing since June 2011. In that time, front-benchers in the House of Commons have been cautious not to make any pledges for beyond the next General Election, particularly in relation to spending commitments. The youth jobs guarantee and reversal of the Tories’ top-down reorganisation of the NHS being notable exceptions. This has changed in recent months. At he 2013 party conference it was announced that the next Labour Government would repeal the Tory/LibDem bedroom tax and freeze energy bills until 2017. in January this year shadow chancellor Ed Balls announced that the 50p tax rate would be re-introduced. Each of these policies creates a clear contrast between Labour and the Tories – clear red water – and each of them will benefit working people and contribute to making Britain a fairer society. Unsurprisingly they have proved popular with party members.
Further spending cuts
Unfortunately when it comes to challenging austerity the picture is less positive. In the same speech in which he announced the return of the 50p tax rate Ed Balls also re-emphasised a previous pledge to use the coalition’s 2015/16 spending plans as a starting point and commit a future Labour Government to further spending cuts. Such an approach risks choking growth and stunting the positive impact which the positive measures above will have. As many in the media claim further cuts are inevitable. So campaigns such as the Labour Assembly Against Austerity are vital in ensuring that alternatives to austerity are heard within the party. As well as igniting an economic debate the recent policy announcements from Ed Balls also raise questions about how policy within the Labour Party is determined. In the 2014 Hugo Young lecture Ed Miliband spoke of empowering individuals and communities so that they are able to help shape the future of their public services. This approach needs to be extended to the Labour Party itself. While the policy review remains ongoing thus far policy commitments, even those with widespread party backing, at present appear to be made by individual front bench spokespeople in conjunction with the leader’s office. This is especially the case in relation to economic policy where decisions continue to be taken behind closed doors by the leader and shadow chancellor. On the other hand policies determined by party members at conference such as the re-nationalisation of the railways and of Royal Mail have simply been ignored. The Labour Party should be proud of our links with the trade unions. Any reform to our party rules and structures should therefore look to strengthen these ties and give working people a greater voice in our party. Time will tell if the Collins Review proposals will achieve this. The move to make affiliated union members who chose to opt in ‘associate members’ could potentially be a positive move which gives trade union members a much greater role within the Party. Much will depend however on how many members choose to opt in and the benefits which becoming an associate member brings. The right to vote in future leadership elections will not be enough, particularly as this is a right which political levy payers in affiliated unions have enjoyed for many years. A meaningful say in determining our policies when in Government would be a much more attractive offer.
Katy Clark is MP for North Ayrshire and Arran.
This article appeared in the latest issue of CHARTIST – 267.