Opinion: What would Labour do?

“What would Jesus do?” ran the famous ‘90s slogan, often with little agreement on the answer. But that question seems positively trivial alongside the far more problematic “What would Labour do?”

As the Coalition is finding to its cost, Labour is often very effective at attacking Government plans but rather less forthcoming on what its alternative might be. And I imagine it must be a little galling for Government ministers when Labour decides to attack policies that they trumpeted in their own 2010 manifesto.

“Surely that could never happen?” I hear you cry. “Labour supporting a policy in 2010 and then laying into others for having the same policy just a year or two later – never!”

I’d have thought so too, but it seems I was wrong.

What about workfare – forcing the long-term unemployed to take a job or risk losing their benefits? From the number of Labour tweeters and bloggers decrying it as some form of slavery (and I can only say that slavery must be a much cushier deal than it was in my day if that’s the case), you might think their party never touched the idea.

But what’s this from Labour’s General Election manifesto?

We will end for good the concept of a life on benefit by offering all those unemployed for more than two years work they must accept[my emphasis]

All those who are long-term unemployed for two years will be guaranteed a job placement, which they will be required to take up or have their benefits cut.

Or perhaps the outrage that greeted the very idea of NHS treatment coming from private providers. A Tory plot to destroy the NHS, supported by supine Lib Dems, we’re told.

Here are Labour’s plans:

In health, this means if we don’t meet our guarantees, for example on waiting lists, the NHS will fund you to go private.

All hospitals will become Foundation Trusts, with successful FTs given the support and incentives to take over those that are under-performing. Failing hospitals will have their management replaced. Foundation Trusts will be given the freedom to expand their provision into primary and community care, and to increase their private services – where these are consistent
with NHS values, and provided they generate surpluses that are invested directly into the NHS.

Over the next four years, we will deliver up to £20 billion of efficiencies in the frontline NHS.

We will support an active role for the independent sector working alongside the NHS in the provision of care.

Sounds strangely familiar!

What about welfare? The evil Con-Dems have cut the welfare budget. Surely Labour would never have dreamed of such a thing?

Tough choices on welfare: our reforms will increase fairness and work incentives, including £1.5 billion of savings being delivered.

No one fit for work should be abandoned to a life on benefit, so all those who can work will be required to do so.

More people with disabilities and health conditions will be helped to move into work from Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance, as we extend the use of our tough-but-fair work capability test.

We will reassess the Incapacity Benefit claims of 1.5 million people by 2014, as we move those able to work back into jobs.

We all know Labour is the champion of public sector workers, so surely a Labour government would never have pinned back public sector pay and pensions:

Tough choices on pay: action to control public-sector pay including a one per cent cap on basic pay uplifts for 2011-12 and 2012-13, saving £3.4 billion a year, and new restrictions on senior pay-setting. Tough decisions on public sector pensions to cap the taxpayers’ liability – saving £1 billion a year.

OK, maybe they would. But obviously Labour would never countenance capping housing benefit as the Coalition are doing:

Benefit will be reformed to ensure that we do not subsidise people to live in the private sector on rents that other ordinary working families could not afford.

Oddly, it seems that the very measures which have been most controversial in this Government are the same ones that appear in that Labour manifesto from 2010. It might be argued that the Coalition would have a lot fewer problems if it stopped lifting policies from the previous government.

Of course, Labour supporters will point out that, even though the policies sound similar, a Labour government would have implemented them completely differently. Welfare costs would have been cut, but Labour would have found a way to save £1.5 billion without actually affecting anyone claiming welfare. That £20 billion of NHS savings Labour were going to find – would have been totally different to the Coalition’s efficiency savings. Totally. Forcing the long-term unemployed to take jobs or lose their benefits? Absolutely no relation to what the current government is doing. None at all.

All these may be true, in which case I can only say what a shame it is that Labour have been unable to share their wisdom with the wider public and give even the slightest clue of how they had planned to do all of this.

* Iain Roberts is the former leader of Stockport Liberal Democrats and Lib Dem Campaign Manager in Greater Manchester Mayoral election and for Cheadle constituency in the General Election

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  • Not sure if you noticed this, but the Labour Party has had a change of leadership, personnel at the top, and direction since 2010. If you want to pretend that the manifesto was written exclusively by Ed Miliband without any oversight from senior colleagues, fine, but I think we all know that’s nonsense.

    Get back to cutting tax for the rich or something.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 11th Jun '12 - 11:48am


    So, what you’re saying is that Labour’s manifesto in 2010 was wrong, or that those who wrote it, and now lead the Party in opposition, didn’t really mean it. And you accuse Liberal Democrats of hypocrisy? We at least have the excuse of being the junior partner in a coalition – what’s your excuse?

  • And look how well they did in the election!

    No, wait…

  • toryboysnevergrowup 11th Jun '12 - 12:02pm

    Good job no one asked this question of the LibDems before May 2010!

  • The more you read between the lines of Labour’s 2010 manifesto re the economy, they’re making themselves more and more like hypocrites these days, by attacking the government’s cuts. Didn’t Alistair Darling pretty much admit that Labour would have made spending cuts if re-elected last time? Nothing wrong with that, but of course the likes Polly Toynbee et al would never admit this. Even in recent months, the two Ed’s have come up short in making assurances to reverse spending cuts.

  • Bill le Breton 11th Jun '12 - 12:08pm

    Or SPLAT! Lab 42; Con 32, LD 10

  • @Tony Miller weren’t both Ed’s rather ‘senior colleagues’ in the last Labour Government who probably had more influence on most on the Manifesto just as they do know on the Labour parties amnesia over it?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 11th Jun '12 - 12:29pm

    It is entirely legitimate to criticise the Coalition for what it does, if you believe that it is wrong. But what does gall is the criticism from Labour for doing pretty much what they said they would have done had they had the opportunity.

    And, of course, if they do win the 2015 General Election, and there is still a deficit to deal with, as expected, they are going to have to;

    a) accept all of the changes made, or
    b) undo those things they promise to undo and cut other things instead

    And it will be unpleasant and painful. But unless everyone is willing to have an honest and open debate on the issues that face us, politicians will continue to disillusion and disappoint the electorate. Anyone fancy taking up that challenge?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 11th Jun '12 - 12:30pm


    I think you will find that the Labour Manifesto was pretty clear that cuts in spending would only take place when growth was established

    “The Tories argue
    that public spending should
    be cut immediately, but this
    position is out of step with every
    other G20 government, right
    or left. If governments do not
    provide support when families
    and businesses most need help,
    growth is set back, jobs are
    lost, and the country builds up
    more debts – paying a higher
    price in the future. To cut now
    would push the economy back
    into recession, not reducing the
    deficit but increasing it.”

    “We will continue to support
    the economy while growth is
    still fragile, sticking with our
    targeted increase in public
    spending over the next year to
    sustain the recovery”

    “Once the recovery is secure,
    we will rapidly reduce the
    budget deficit.”

    Of course back in those days a certain other party agreed with this position:

    “We must ensure the timing is right. If spending is cut too soon, it. would
    undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs. We will base the timing
    of cuts on an objective assessment of economic conditions, not political

    So what is the objective assessment as to whether this year’s cuts in public spending
    “would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs”??

  • Geoffrey Payne 11th Jun '12 - 12:45pm

    All the more the pity we did not attack them on these issues during the general election campaign then

  • It would help if things where put into context rather than being spun, something that the Liberal Democrats seem to excel at these days.

    Yes Labour did say

    “All those who are long-term unemployed for two years will be guaranteed a job placement, which they will be required to take up or have their benefits cut.”

    Where in this do you see labour suggesting that the job placement would be a mandatory unpaid placement?


    Yes Labour said “Tough choices on welfare: our reforms will increase fairness and work incentives, including £1.5 billion of savings being delivered.”

    I think £1 and half Billion pounds of savings on welfare is far more reasonable and far less draconian than the coalitions £20 Billion pounds cuts on welfare and reports of a further £10 Billion in the pipe line.

    Some accuracy please if your ever going to attempt to regain any credibility with the electorate again

  • Labour guaranteed people a paid job.

    The current government forces jobseekers to work unpaid – uncomfortably close to slavery and concentration camps. 🙁
    Especially now that unemployment welfare doesn’t even cover food and bills. 🙁 🙁

  • Yet another anti-Labour thread on LDV. Is there a ‘conspiracy’ to sour any chance of a future ‘meeting of minds’ between an ever more right leaning LibDem ‘rump’ and Labour? Of course not.
    As for Labour ‘hypocrisy’; it’s called opposition…..Before any more false outrage let us examine our, and our coalition partners, record.

  • Peter Watson 11th Jun '12 - 2:00pm

    Your quotes from the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos are depressing. We also said, “Our working assumption is that the economy will be in a stable enough condition to bear cuts from the beginning of 2011–12.”
    It looks like we called it right before the election when only the Conservatives were saying, “The case for starting early to re-establish our economic credibility is overwhelming, and is backed by economists and business leaders. We will start by cutting a net £6 billion of wasteful departmental spending in the financial year 2010/11.”.
    It feels that we really did sell our soul and abandon our principles on entering coalition, but perhaps this gives us a way forward as we campaign for 2015. We can simply say, “Look at the mess we’ve made of the economy. We told you it was the wrong thing to do before we did it, so you’d better believe us next time.” Or something like that.

  • The thing Labour are in opposition they,don’t actually need to do anything. The other point is that this Government did not have a fixed economic plan until it was formed. If I was Labour , what I would do is continue to attack and then use the economic situation as as an excuse for an emergency budget so that I could impose a lot of long cherished think tank policies on the country. This is after all, the New Politics.

  • I don’t get the defensiveness of tribal apologists who appear to believe the merits of opposite sides are relative to each other – even if one is bad, it doesn’t make the other good by default.

    Sure, I accept the coalition is far from perfect, but the fact is that Labour was measurably far worse and has done next to nothing to soften or alter it’s course since.

    Labour’s answers failed on a spectacular scale and they still refuse absolutely to take any responsibility, yet now they somehow expect the same answers to succeed miraculously with nothing more than cosmetic tweaks – they may have moved the chairs, but the faces are the same, the policies are the same and their outcomes will be equally bad if not worse.

    Unless the Labour leader can articulate more than a dialogue about changes to their party policy then it is impossible to expect any change in their fortunes – scraping 40% mid-term against an obviously divided coalition during a period of cutbacks is terminal for the pitiably uninspiring Miliband and his union backers.

    Labour lost the economic argument long ago. Hoping for a change of question won’t help anybody.

    They’re effectively bankrupt – both morally and financially. Labour’s rhetoric is dull and I think their example is dangerous, they are the natural party of national decline.

  • Peter Watson 11th Jun '12 - 2:29pm

    “Labour lost the economic argument long ago. ”
    It seems to me that Labour’s economic argument (and ours) was that cutting too much, too fast, AND TOO SOON, would kill off the growth that was already there and lead to a double-dip recession. The tory argument was that it would not. The current economic figures suggest that it was not Labour that lost that argument.
    We and the tories seem to have tried to back every possible horse (let’s spend like Labour then let’s not, QE bad then good, let’s be like Ireland then let’s not, don’t cut too soon then let’s cut too soon), so I’m not too sure whether there ever was an argument anyway!

  • @Peter Watson
    “Labour lost the economic argument long ago.”

    banging on about statistics in the region of 0.1% is no actual debate, it is purely technical and misses the issues.

    Labout first lost the economic argument when Ramsay MacDonald initially took the party into government, and it has consistently lost the argument every time it has gone into government since.

    Most recently the Brown-designed ‘Growth and Stability pact’ was not enforced, and THIS created the current situation of no growth and no stability – until we can reach agreement on common European financial regulations all other measures are dealing with nothing more than the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.

    Even an ordinary flu sufferer knows that you can remain infectious without sneezing, so the number of hankies you carry in your pocket is completely beside the point.

    The LibDem argument remains that economic reforms must go hand-in-hand with structural reforms.

    That this cannot happen without greater integration, or at least cooperation, and that any internal or external measures are taken and made in concert rather than in a merry-go-round of constant reactions to prevent the vicious unwinding of social exchange and interaction remains as true and as relevant today as it always has.

    Conservative and Labour voices continue to focus on the 20th century left-right pendulum of ‘tax-and-spend’ analysis – the language is still always about cuts or rises, rarely reform.

    The inhumanity of that form of political economy has been shown by each in turn and the analysis has declined in relevance as a result, which perfectly explains why public mistrust of politicians is at a record high.

    If you’re looking for growth stocks, buy disillusion and anger while Labour and Tories are in government!

  • JadeD: please don’t make comparisons to concentration camps. If you had any idea how offensive it is to those who experienced them you would not use them to make a political attack.

  • Peter Watson 11th Jun '12 - 4:20pm

    “banging on about statistics in the region of 0.1% is no actual debate, it is purely technical and misses the issues.”
    I’m a bit confused now (and am certainly no economist), but surely it’s more than quibbling over +/-0.1%: that simply means that at best the economy has “flatlined” under the coalition, and that was never anybody’s plan.
    I’m sure you are correct that neither Conservative nor Labour have the best way forward, but that does not excuse us from wholeheartedly jumping on board with a set of policies which we opposed while seeking election: surely governing in the national interest means standing up for what WE think is RIGHT, not going along with something we previously (and correctly!) said would damage the economy.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 11th Jun '12 - 5:34pm

    What I’m most worried about is the here and now – the Government is undertaking a further tightening of its stance during the current year, yet one of the Coalition partners quite clearly fought the election saying the following:

    “We must ensure the timing is right. If spending is cut too soon, it. would
    undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs. We will base the timing
    of cuts on an objective assessment of economic conditions, not political

    So where is the objective assessment ? Where is the attempt to convince your coalition partners that there are alternatives? On the other hand you could just resort to name calling.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 11th Jun '12 - 5:40pm

    fiscal before stance in the last posting

  • Stuart Mitchell 11th Jun '12 - 8:28pm

    “Labout first lost the economic argument when Ramsay MacDonald initially took the party into government, and it has consistently lost the argument every time it has gone into government since.”

    Good grief. You can remember Ramsey Macdonal but have somehow forgotten that after Labour took power in 1997, both the main opposition parties backed Labour’s fiscal policies for ELEVEN AND A HALF YEARS. That was hardly losing the argument, was it? This situation only came to an end when the Tories proposed some extremely modest cuts in November 2008.

    Name one other government in history that pursued such a universally popular economic policy for its first eleven and a half years in office.

  • @ Matt and Jade – not that two wrongs make a right but workfare is basically an extension of Labour’s New Deal!

  • Tony Dawson 12th Jun '12 - 7:50am

    Labour spent their 13 years of government pumping up the gap between rich and poor to a level even Mrs Thatcher might be ashamed of. They did this by creating an inflationary ‘boom’, ie creating a false economy, based on an ‘affluence’ which was entirely based upon stealing money from future generations, and making sure their rich friends got more than a fair share of this. You can do that for a few years and get away with it. Blair and Brown just could not stop.

    The present round of efficiency savings in the NHS are the ones which were announced by. . . . . .

    Health Secretary Andy Burnham.

  • @Peter Watson
    agreed, flat-lined or bottoming out. Either way, though, that’s at worse relatively much less damage than the economic collapse in 2008-9.

    @Stuart Mitchell
    false memory syndrome.

    The still-beating heart of Labour continues to claim to support socialist economics, yet every policy shift they’ve sought to move them closer to government has moved them further away from this.

    It’s easy to forget the succession of policy swings while Brown was at No11 in all but his first year, so it’s impossible to reliably say that any responsible critic was ever unequivocally supportive. It also turned out that this helped ensure no counter-narrative could gain popular traction and the many lone voices of criticism were unable to unify into a chorus until the inevitable consequent disaster was almost upon us.

    So I completely reject your outrageous claim that no party except Labour has “pursued such a universally popular economic policy” as equally factually untrue, actually impossible and ridiculous.

    Hindsight’s accuracy should teach us it is of dubious value!

  • The spending cuts haven’t really kicked in yet anyway. The Government has banged on about austerity without doing that much cutting, with the results that the markets are giving us a lower cost of borrowing, but that demand is depressed.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jun '12 - 12:53pm

    This is how Labour always behaves in opposition. They will bitterly and angrily criticise decisions that they know they would have made had they remained in government. Anyone who has experienced taking control of a local council from Labour will know this. Suddenly, Labour turn in to SWPers – there’s a marvellous socialist solution just round the corner (only they won’t give us the details) and everything the current council/government is doing is motivated by malice. Labour will throw as much mud as they can, in fact this will be their major activity rather than constructing policy alternatives, confident in the idea that mud-slinging will bring the political pendulum swinging back to them.

    This is why I, despite being deeply unhappy with the coalition and deeply unhappy with the current leadership of the Liberal Democrats, remain a Liberal Democrat and could not join Labour.

  • Stuart Mitchell 12th Jun '12 - 6:07pm

    “So I completely reject your outrageous claim that no party except Labour has ‘pursued such a universally popular economic policy’ as equally factually untrue, actually impossible and ridiculous.”

    In that case I look forward to you telling me which other government in living history pursued a fiscal policy so consensual* that the main opposition party pledged to match it, pound for pound, for a full eleven and a half years. (The Lib Dems – always having to be just a little bit different – proposed a negligibly larger state in 2001 and 2005, then matched Labour in 2010.)

    It’s not so much that Labour “won” the argument – there was no argument to actually win, since the Tories and Lib Dems offered no alternative at all until the game was nearly up. This makes it all the more ridiculous that Lib Dems are bashing Labour now for having no radical alternative after two years in opposition.

    “This is how Labour always behaves in opposition. They will bitterly and angrily criticise decisions that they know they would have made had they remained in government.”

    Who doesn’t? When Theresa May announces the full details of her snooper’s charter on Friday, will Lib Dems howl with anything like the vehemence they would be doing if they were sitting on the opposition benches? No. They’ll be telling everyone it’s not so bad.

    * To pre-empt the obvious joke: I’m not implying here that Labour shafted us, and we let them do it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jun '12 - 11:12am

    Stuart Mitchell

    “This is how Labour always behaves in opposition. They will bitterly and angrily criticise decisions that they know they would have made had they remained in government.”

    Who doesn’t?

    When I was Leader of the Opposition in the London Borough of Lewisham, I would always consider carefully any plans made by the majority Labour group. If my conclusion was that were I Leader rather the Leader of the Opposition of the council I would be proposing much the same, I would not go howling at them accusing them of being evil uncaring irresponsible people for every rise in council tax or every cut in services or whatever. Having seen the huge damage caused by destructive opposition elsewhere, my line was always that I would operate a constructive opposition. That is, anything I said would be based on reality rather than fantasy, I would start off from the assumption that all of us wanted the best for our borough, and my criticisms would be oriented towards those aspects where I genuinely felt something could be done differently and better, or where I felt some important considerations had been missed.

    It may be though this was a very weak and wishy-washy way to play politics and not the way to get anywhere, but I would like to point out that when I started as Leader of the Opposition we had 3 councillors, and in the elections after I stepped down we had 18.

  • Well put, Matthew. I have had many arguments over the years with people who have suggested putting opportunist and / or populist opposition lines, on the basis of “we wouldn’t have to implement them”. Frankly, that’s the way to go to agree with those who say we shouldn’t be given power. It is also absolutely different from a principled, but unexpected line, eg “we are paying too much attention to immediate deficit reduction as a party”.

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