With the economic crisis projected to extend into the next parliament and forming the longest economic slump in modern history, two opposing political narratives are building up support, testing Labour in the coming months and years.
The anti-austerity movement is growing, which the increased protests around hospitals, fire stations and the bedroom tax and a planned People’s Assembly Against Austerity in June. Labour must demonstrate its solidarity with that movement.
But in direct opposition to this movement, the right is seeking to divide opposition to austerity and deflect an increased focus on the government by whipping up hostility to migrants and blaming them, as the Daily Express helpfully explains, for ‘pushing stretched public services to breaking point.’
Labour has yet to break from the Tories political framework that cuts are somehow inevitable though there is enough evidence it can benefit from doing so, while the party continues to hold itself hostage to the right on immigration, failing to set out a defence of multiculturalism.
As these two movements grow, Labour needs to shift decisively to offer a radical opposition to the government’s agenda, by defending public spending and the benefits of immigration.
Labour opposing cuts
Independent community campaigns, opposing cuts to local public services are gaining traction, with hospital campaigns and protests against the bedroom tax mobilising thousands. In each case, local Labour MPs and councillors, and party activists have shown their support.
As these campaigns grow and organise regional and national demonstrations, Ed Miliband and Labour nationally must also give them their backing – or suffer the consequences.
In London now, the growing number of local hospital campaigns have called a London-wide demonstration to defend the NHS. The London Labour Party has already helped publicise it following a vote by activists at the regional conference.
Islington Labour has also recently demonstrated that unambiguous opposition to public services cuts can reap rewards, as it scored landslide victories in two council by-elections last week where the dominant issue was the shock announcement of plans for a major site sell-off and threats to over 500 jobs at the Whittington Hospital
Islington Labour made opposition to the proposals the main theme of its campaign, identifying the Coalition Government spending cuts agenda as the cause. The party distributed letters to all voters outlining our clear opposition, urging them to join what turned out to be a 600-strong public meeting called by the Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition and, in another letter, to join their rally – which included 5,000 taking part in a march - on the weekend before polling day.
The election campaign also had a positive message and outlined the progressive work carried out by Islington Council’s Labour administration despite the cuts, including building the largest number of housing units in London (and second highest in the country) and introducing universal free school meals, as well as delivering the London Living Wage and taking numerous council services back in-house.
A progressive Labour message meant the party was able to mobilise large numbers of activists and when polling day arrived, Labour saw swings of 25 and 30% in each seat winning with 71% and 62% share of the vote in St George’s and Junction respectively.
Rise of UKIP and anti-immigration politics
Opposing the anti-austerity movement is another that condemns immigration. In Britain, growing hostility to immigration has focused on migrants use of public services. This has been represented organisationally by the rise of UKIP as a political force poses a challenge to all parties, with Cameron signalling his intention to restrict migrant access to services.
Ed Miliband has already signalled his view that there are ‘benefits issues for people coming here from Bulgaria or Romania’, playing into the right wing framework. As the Tories up the ante, Labour cannot drift along with their message.
In the Rotherham and Eastleigh parliamentary by-elections, UKIP purposefully ran anti-immigrant campaigns. In Havering’s Gooshays ward last week, UKIP won their first council by-election in London. After enjoying a surge in polling over a number of weeks, including strong results in the Rotherham and Eastleigh by-elections, they successfully brought together former Conservative and BNP voters to leapfrog Labour, whose vote held up.
Elected councillor Lawrence Webb told the Romford Recorder, “This is a local election, but people are concerned about national issues and one of those is immigration. Gooshays has quite a few open spaces and there’s tremendous pressure to build on some of those. What people fear is it won’t be for them and their families but for the overspill from London or other parts of Europe.”
But it has been left to figures like Jonathan Portes to expose the nonsense of immigration economics argued by the right, while Diane Abbott has politically attacked the rightward moving agenda.
Where next for Labour?
The key message to take from this must be that the UKIP rise is based on an increasing anti-immigrant narrative that seeks to establish scapegoats for the declining living standards caused by austerity. Labour is best placed to win by unambiguously challenging the government’s austerity agenda and exposing its lies around immigration.