The issue as to whether Labour should aim to slide past the electoral winning post with (as one senior civil servant once said to me) ‘minimum exposure of flank’ or make clear what Labour today really stands for and what its central objectives for government really are, is an extremely important one. The argument for the former is obviously that it entails fewer risks in counter-blasts from the Tories and their right-wing media friends – and clearly a campaign to project the party with a more confident and inspirational presence does have to be worked on very carefully if it is not to be misrepresented and exploited by malevolent enemies. But the argument against, which in my view tips the balance, is that there is very sizeable segment of the electorate, to a large degree potential Labour voters, who feel unmotivated and disinclined to vote at all. The classes with the lowest turnouts at the 2010 election were the young and those who were semi-skilled or unskilled workers. The potential gains of winning them over to vote, even perhaps inspiring them, could well in terms of the millions they represent turn out to be the decisive factor at the next election.
Of course it will raise the political heat in this coming year before the election. But – and again planned very carefully beforehand – picking a fight on a few central issues could likely be essential in stamping Labour’s identity on the minds of the voters. It is often only when a political party sets its standard on some big, often contentious, issue and fights its corner robustly and confidently against the inevitable attacks that the voters conclude that the party really means it and, if the issue has been chosen well, begins to swing behind it.
Renationalising rail and at least some energy companies would be one such issue which shows Labour will re-draw the lines between State and markets not only to protect long-suffering customers, but to stop exploitation in failed private markets. Another such issue would be to establish Enterprise Councils in all large companies which would give worker representatives drawn from across the firm a say both in its operations and in allocation of pay from boardroom to shopfloor, as one way to tackle inequality at source. A third, and perhaps most important of all, would be to give a clear commitment to repudiate Osborne-style austerity and through a major programme of public investment kickstart the economy and generate a million jobs within 2 years in house-building, infrastructure improvement in energy, transport and IT, and laying the foundations for a low-carbon economy.