Now Labour's hopefuls need to show some radicalism
There were four real losers from yesterday’s Budget – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn.
The Chancellor played an absolute blinder in delivering a truly Conservative Budget full of tax reductions, welfare tightening and measures to support business – whilst also flooring Labour and its leadership candidates with the announcement of a Living Wage.
You only had to look at Iain Duncan Smith MP’s reaction to the announcement to see how much it meant to him and to his party. In the same way that Blair made some immediate policy announcements post 1997, Cameron and Osborne are using the weeks following their election victory to show what a majority Conservative Government really looks like.
The fact that George Osborne may have ‘borrowed’ policies from other parties does not matter one jot. All governments are guilty of this practice and the electorate only remembers who brought it in, not who first thought of it. In fact, if the electorate keeps hearing ‘it was us that thought of it first’ then they can react in a negative way. Labour, in this case, needs to be more grown up.
By making a deliberate play for Labour’s policy areas, Osborne is taking another tactic from the Blair playbook. New Labour stormed the Conservatives’ key electoral strengths on the economy and law and order and combined them with their own, the NHS, education etc. Osborne is attempting this approach as well.
So whilst the Conservatives are not afraid to learn from Blair, it seems Labour is - and remains ashamed of that election winning period.
Despite details being released from the IFS that suggest that the Budget changes to working age benefits will leave around 13 million families worse off, Labour is still drifting.
There are always ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from any Budget and any policy but Osborne’s calculation is that either the ‘losing’ group is so small as to not matter electorally or that by 2020 everyone will have forgotten. In addition, such tough measures may cement support as well having a beneficial effect.
Labour and the leadership candidates are stuck between defending welfare claimants, complaining that the Living Wage isn’t really a living wage and by default businesses that should, it seems to be Osborne’s argument, be paying employees more.
Actually, the state subsidising poor wages, high rents etc. is something Labour should have paid some attention to previously. By not doing so, Osborne has been able to show that he is prepared to tackle business failings. It adds to Labour’s battle against the ‘One Nation’ Conservatives, a title that Miliband did his best to appropriate.
In the weeks since Labour’s leadership election got going, the candidates have engaged in a bonfire of the policies they perceived as being unpopular with the electorate. So much so it is not entirely clear what is left. They only have a matter of weeks to come up with a strategy that demonstrates what their version of the Labour Party will look like against the Osborne inspired Conservatives.
This uncertainty amongst the candidates will pervade the Parliamentary party as well. So its ability to act as a coherent and effective opposition party will be undermined. This will allow the Conservatives to build up an even greater head of steam.
The leadership contest meanwhile seems dominated by perceived slights – ‘working mum’, ‘party first’ – rather than matters of substance. Issues such as these will continue to dominate the headlines surrounding the Labour leadership all the time there is little else to choose between the candidates.
Policies are being dripped out from each candidate with no current prospect of a 'manifesto' being issued. Some are claiming that these are the policies that they want to fight the 2020 election on - which will come as a surprise to many - especially as the party itself has not been involved in developing those policies.
Until the candidates can set out some clear statements of intent and show how they fundamentally differ from one another, these skirmishes will continue. Against Osborne’s Budget this is now imperative.
Osborne’s Budgets can, however, receive great initial headlines followed by unfavourable comment in the days afterwards once the impact of all the measures is added together.
For Labour’s candidates to rely on this would be a huge mistake. One or all of them need to respond in a forceful way. Otherwise, they are in danger of looking like conservatives with Osborne and Cameron placed as the great radical reformers.
Labour seemed utterly reliant on the NHS in its campaigning for the 2015 election, they cannot risk such a narrow approach in 2020 as well. Appealing to a coalition of the disposed similarly will not win any elections.
Whichever candidate has the ability to think fast and move fast could find himself or herself the eventual winner. Ironically, some enforced soul searching caused by the Budget could do the leadership contest, and the Labour Party, a huge favour.