Labour has a choice to make. It can say it will balance the books or it can deliver political change, but it can’t do both

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I noted the Politics Home email this morning suggesting that whilst the Tories have made almost no policy announcements in Manchester this week they have simultaneously pushed Labour into an almost impossible political position. Three things apparently create this outcome.

First the Tories have claimed that levelling up is their agenda even if nothing is actually happening. They think the Red Wall will believe them despite the inaction.

Second, Politics Home suggest that there is to be a near 6% increase in the living wage, taking it to £9.24 an hour, although this will not be announced today.This, they say, is what levelling up will look like in action and will be a big win for the Tories even though the gain for most working people will be less than the Universal Credit cut most on the living wage qualify for.

Third, the anti-migration rhetoric on wages will work, they think.

The result is that the suggest Labour is left with very little room for manoeuvre and that the Tories have pushed Labour out of their own natural political territory.

This is a pretty strange idea. When it comes down to what they are saying is that a so-called levelling up agenda based solely on an increase in the living wage is an election winning political strategy. The rest amounts to bluster.

Ignore that bluster and in the real world the list of issues requiring attention is near endless. For starters there are:

  • The continuing Covid crisis
  • Unemployment
  • Extreme poverty, being made worse by government action
  • NHS waiting lists
  • Supply chain issues
  • Food and energy price inflation
  • The care crisis
  • Northern Ireland
  • Scottish independence
  • Inequality
  • Unfair tax increases
  • The climate crisis (above all else)
  • A democratic crisis
  • A housing crisis
  • EU relations

I could go on. But do I need to? The issues that Labour could be tackling are near endless.

The problem Labour has is not in finding the issues to attack the government on. It’s problem is that it has decided to play by the government’s rules. If Labour apes the Tory’s fiscal rule - as seems likely - and says it will not borrow for current spending and will only borrow to invest if overall borrowing still falls as a percentage of GDP then it is true that there is almost nothing that Labour can do to challenge the Tories because it will have chosen to take itself out of action in most political spheres by doing so.

You can’t as an opposition say you will change things for the better and also deliver spending cuts. That simply is not possible. But that is what Labour is intent on doing.

In that case Politics Home might be right. Labour may have nothing to say when the only policy left which a government can use to level up is the minimum wage because the government does not have to pay that and business does. And the Tories are going to claim this policy for themselves.

Labour has a choice to make. It can say it will balance the books or it can deliver political change. But it can’t do both. It has to decide. And right now it’s making the wrong choice, which means it is doing all it can to keep the Tories in power.