The first month of the year was bad for Labour but for the country was made worse by the Tories, argues Mary Creagh for Progress.
January 2016 marked the beginning of the first full year of majority Conservative government for two decades. Its slim electoral mandate has not prevented it from carrying out a swingeing assault on tax credits and council budgets. It has seized the rhetoric of the centre-ground with the so-called living wage, while tacking firmly to the right on social security reform. And it is making mistakes where we, as the official opposition, must hold it to account.
The salt in the wound of a Tory majority government is our side missing easy wins. Over Christmas, pre-briefing of the Labour reshuffle competed with national consternation at the Christmas floods. The longest reshuffle in Labour history topped the news for the first fortnight after the break, instead of David Cameron’s failures. And failures there were aplenty: rail fare increases, the first junior doctors’ strike for 40 years, and a cabinet split on the European Union referendum, to name but a few.
The Tories see this as an opportunity to advance their own case for re-election. We cannot afford to let them have an easy ride. Every chance we miss to call them out on the damage they are inflicting on our country, through their programme and unforced errors, leads them one step closer to re-election in 2020. Unleashed after five years in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Tories are free to implement their manifesto undiluted. It is up to Labour to scrutinise what this means in practice.
While Labour members were out leafleting commuters about the rail fare hike at 6am on 4 January, the media turned its eye to the reshuffle saga. Since 2010, rail season tickets have increased on average by 25 per cent – three times faster than wages. The cost of an annual season ticket from Manchester to Wakefield has risen by £400, or 32 per cent, since 2010, while a Virgin Trains season ticket between Birmingham and London now costs an eye-watering £10,000.
The Tories were also on the back foot on the floods that struck swaths of Yorkshire, Cumbria, Scotland and Wales. At the first prime minister’s questions after Christmas, Cameron stated that no flood defence schemes had been cut by the Conservatives. He was wrong.
In Leeds, the country’s third largest city, where 1,500 homes and 400 businesses were affected by flooding this winter, a £180m scheme to safeguard the city was scrapped in 2011. That scheme covered the Kirkstall area of the city, which flooded on Boxing Day. Had that flood occurred on a normal weekday the consequences would have been severe. With the main railway station closed and roads flooded, tens of thousands of office workers would have been trapped in the city. The electricity grid came close to cutting power for 50,000 homes. If that had happened, the mobile phone networks would have been affected, along with ambulance, police and fire responders.
After Leeds council stumped up £10m of so-called partnership funding, a £45m flood defence plan is under construction in the city. Unlike the original plan, it does not cover the Kirkstall Road area. It will not be completed until 2017. It will only protect against a one-in-75-year flood, not the one-in-200 year event as originally planned. Calling the Tories out on their misleading statements is what our constituents expect from us.
As Labour’s shadow environment secretary from 2010 to 2013, I watched in horror as the coalition government cut flood defence spending by nearly £100m in 2010. That was a 27 per cent cut to capital funding. That cut ignored the key recommendation from the review by Michael Pitt, commissioned by Labour following the 2007 floods, that flood defence spending should rise by more than inflation each year.
I asked the House of Commons Library to research what the long-term impact of that shortsighted decision was from 2010 to 2015. It calculated that, had spending continued as Pitt recommended from that 2010 baseline, flood defence capital spending should have been £3.46bn over the last five years. Under the Conservatives, it has been just £3.22bn. That is a flood defence spending gap of a gigantic £240m.
Labour’s shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy piled the pressure on with an opposition day debate, and the chair of the Environment Agency resigned. However, with Emily Thornberry replacing Maria Eagle as shadow defence secretary all our efforts were pretty fruitless in news terms. You could feel the government kick back their feet.
The following week, after a further round of sackings and resignations of Labour shadow ministers, we had the junior doctors’ strike. In government, Labour changed their contract to introduce financial penalties for employers if junior doctors work longer than contracted. This Tory government wants to remove these safeguards in the new contract, while cutting pay for doctors who currently work evenings and weekends. But in medicine mistakes cost lives. The safeguards need to be much stronger than generic working time regulations, especially as junior doctors already work a number of extra hours over and above their contracts.
Jeremy Hunt is to doctors what Michael Gove was to teachers. Our challenge is to convert public servants’ anti-Tory sentiment into support for Labour. We have to earn it. Heidi Alexander is leading Labour’s attack effectively, showing how NHS spending is slipping behind our EU neighbours. We must keep up the pressure and not detract from it by making our internal politics the bigger news story.
The greatest national threat from the Tory government is the EU referendum, which we expect this summer. As a member of Alan Johnson’s Labour In for Britain strategy group, I am proud our party is so united on Europe. Jeremy Corbyn and entire shadow cabinet and the overwhelming majority of the parliamentary Labour party will campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. Labour In for Britain will be the only national party political campaign for us to remain in the EU.
Cameron managed to get away with his cabinet splitting over the referendum while our reshuffle was ongoing. The EU referendum has always been about the prime minister putting party management above the interests of the country. This collective irresponsibility is the latest stage of his plan to unravel.
Tory Eurosceptics are growing louder in their dissent ahead of renegotiation. It is a platform for the likes of Boris Johnson and Theresa May to further their leadership bids, all too happy to flirt with the isolationist rightwing of the Conservative party. It was revealed in January that the ‘Labour Leave’ domain name had been bought by Dominic Cummings, a former adviser to Gove. The Tories might be using the dark political arts to try and paint Labour as divided on Europe but there is no escaping it: it is Tory disunity that is the ticking time-bomb.
The EU is the most successful peace process the world has seen. Economic, political and migratory instability are putting it to the test. The consequences of leaving the EU are unthinkable: less investment, greater insecurity and lower environmental standards. At the same time, Brexit could trigger other EU members to walk away: the rise of the Front National in France and of nationalist parties in the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary and Poland sounds alarm bells.
The first few weeks of the year saw the global economy slump and billions wiped off the global stock market. Our steel industry is reeling after Tata Steel announced its plans to cut over 1,000 jobs in the United Kingdom, including 750 at Port Talbot, the UK’s biggest steelworks.
The first month of the year was bad for Labour but for the country was made worse by the Tories. We need to sharpen our defences and expose the full incompetence of a Conservative majority government. When Labour is the news story, we let the Tories off the hook.
This article was first published by Progress magazine, 1st February 2016, http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2016/02/01/new-year-blues.