Ed Miliband was right when he said being in opposition was crap. But the most alarming thing is that it may not be for the reasons everybody expects.
Personally, I’m sick of spin. I’m sick of attacking the opposition for the sheer hell of it. And, most of all, I’m sick of the hypocrisy some are showing in attacking things we would have done exactly the same.
As Douglas Alexander rightly pointed out, we cannot and should not be diametrically opposed to all plans put out by the Government. There are a lot of things on which, idealistically, we differ – but you cannot win an election by being reactionary.
Tough times call for tough measures and, so, it’s time to “man-up”, stop the bickering between the left and right and start work on becoming what we need to be in order to gain any credibility amongst the disillusioned public – pragmatic idealists.
Like it or not, we’re back seat drivers now, and everybody knows you can’t reach the wheel – but you can influence the direction of where you’re going.
On VAT we are well within our rights to say “too far, too fast”, but what is the alternative? A rise in Income Tax would solve nothing as, if we are being honest here, the whole tax system could do with an overhaul to make it fairer on those on the lowest incomes (I applaud the Govt’s decision to lift more people out of paying tax, but it’s not enough).
And it is also is true that Alistair Darling wanted to raise VAT were we to have remained in Govt. We can say things have changed now, but to not acknowledge his original plans (and his experience in deftly handling the banking crisis lends these an enormous amount of credibility) is sheer lunacy.
When it comes to Education, there are several places I believe we are going wrong.
The Pupil Premium, on paper, is a great idea; money following children from school to school means funding is more evenly spread. Surely we are a progressive party? I have never felt entirely comfortable with the idea children from middle-class areas should have less money go to their schools – everybody should be entitled to the same benefits when growing up to give everybody an equal opportunity in life. But, at the same time, cancelling BSF was an outrage. The schools that need the most work are those in poorer areas, and even if you doubled the amount-per-pupil through the PP it still wouldn’t compensate – a leaky building and crumbling walls do not help create a good learning atmosphere.
And as for EMA? It’s useful, it helps; having grown up in South Wales, I can vouch for this. But.
It needs to be radically reformed. Why not give the money to colleges and instruct them to use it in appropriate ways; subsidised travel for those who qualify, free required text books for subjects, funding essential field trips. The advantage to this would mean all who qualify benefit by default (similar to the free school dinners system in the lower years), and people will stop complaining the money isn’t being used for the right things.
People also need to be aware of a rather fatal flaw with EMA; it was never tied into increases in the cost of living. A fact I was made painfully aware of a decade ago when my college regretfully told me that as my family’s earnings had increased by less than 5% (putting me approx. £10 over the threshold) I was ineligible – all because said threshold for EMA hadn’t changed in 5 years when every other benefit had increased. Annoying, difficult and an example of not thinking about things in the long-term.
And the big one? University funding.
Granting part-time students access to loans, the Scholarship Fund and, yes, even the Graduate Contribution Scheme (which is, in effect, the Graduate Tax re branded), are good ideas in theory. Ideas like this should be supported where possible – but always with suggestions for alterations and improvements.
The rise in tuition fees, however, is appalling. Yes, we did introduce them after saying we wouldn’t – and Sadiq Khan admitted we would have upped tuition fees again (only be a couple of hundred pounds, granted, but we were) – but they were to increase funding to universities, not to cover for the harsh cuts being forced upon higher education institutions.
There are many issues where we have, perhaps, gone in headlong and foolhardy and not really considered how our actions will give the wrong impression to the public. We need to admit to mistakes – not being tougher on banks, ID cards, welfare reform – recognising we did not listen to the public. As Sadiq Khan also recently said, we became arrogant.
But with the likes of Fresh Ideas, the party are making a conscious effort to engage people who want to be heard. Admittedly there are problems with the way they are going about it, and I have reservations about simply asking those online activists and campaigners who are invested in the party instead of the wider public and potential voters – but it’s a start.
And we should admit the Lib Dems are making a difference. Can we honestly say, hand on heart, that without them some of these policies would have been implemented?
We need to acknowledge that for every good, progressive idea they push through the Tories counter act it with something bigger, stronger, harsher – and sit back laughing as the rest of us attack the Liberal Democrats for not using their less than 20% of Govt (for that’s all it is) to right all the wrongs of the world.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t criticise them for not doing enough; for not shouting loud enough about the issues that matter to them.
I understand the need to differentiate ourselves from the Govt, to make us appealing to the many jaded individuals who are now starting to experience the severity of the cuts imposed on us by the coalition – but we need to do it honestly.
The problem we face isn’t that people like the Government, but that we are helping, not hindering, their cause – we are too quick to shout “objection!”, falling into a world of soundbites not substance. We come across as defensive, rather than reflective.
This is our chance to prove that politicians – that Labour Party politicians – have changed.
That they listen and, more importantly, learn.
And what’s so wrong about that?