The two Ed’s, Diane, Andy or David. Which of the Labour leadership candidates are you backing?
I’m supporting Ed Balls. He put up a great fight against Michael Gove’s botched announcement to cut funding for new school buildings, and he’s really ready to take on the coalition government and expose the damage it’s doing to our economy, our public services and ordinary people’s lives. But we’re lucky that all the candidates for the leadership are really skilled, committed and principled, and I’ll be proud to have any of them as our leader.
You hate the Lib Dem – Tory budget. Got a substantial alternative plan to cut the deficit? A Robin Hood tax? Extending the top rate of tax to people earning £100,000?
First off, the Coalition are going in way too hard with their plans. Labour is committed to a plan to halve the deficit in 4 years, now the Con-Dems say they’ll wipe it out completely. But public borrowing is what is paying to protect jobs and services, and if we cut so hard and so fast, we’ll put more people out of work, and risk plunging the country back into recession.
Second, as we saw from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies’ report, their budget is hitting the poorest much harder than the better off. That’s unfair, and it exposes the lie that this government’s interested in reducing inequality.
But we do have to get the deficit down, no one wants to be spending money on interest payments that could go on front line services. So we need policies that can do this fairly and safely. For example, I’m in favour of extending the top tax rate to those earning over £100,000, I believe there are good savings to be made by local service providers working effectively together rather than duplicating provision, and I want to see much tougher action on tax avoidance which costs the country billions each year.
You voted against the government’s VAT increase. Aren’t you deluding yourself? According to Peter Mandelson’s memoirs, “Third Man”, Alistair Darling wanted to increase VAT to 19 per cent. Would you have voted against a VAT of 19 per cent?
The overall effect of this government’s budget is to hit the poor the most. Labour wouldn’t have done that, we’d have had a budget that protected the poorest. A budget is a package of measures, and it’s not about voting for or against just one element, you’re looking at the overall effect.
During Labour’s 13 years in government, the gap between rich and poor widened. Your party failed to reverse the growing inequalities in our society. What can your party do to convince electors that Labour is the party for social justice and fairness?
Inequality and poverty rose massively under the Tories between 1979 and 1997. Labour halted the rising trend in inequality (though you’re right, we didn’t reverse it) and we lifted millions of children and pensioners out of poverty. I’m proud of those achievements. Of course we need to go further, and that means a fairer system of taxation, adequate benefits for people who can’t work, and giving everyone the best opportunities. That’s what Labour stands for, and it will be a priority for our new leader.
In an article in the Guardian on Monday, Andy Burnham criticised the “metropolitan elites” that have dominated the Labour Party. Agree or disagree with this?
I think we do have to make sure all members of our party have a real say in our policies and our decisions. We need to reform the way we consult and involve our party members. Thousands of new members have been joining us since the election, and we can learn a lot from listening to them and to all our loyal members.
If you believe in the voluntary sector, why have many Labour MPs criticised the “Big Society”?
The voluntary sector does great work but it can’t replace state provision. It’s too small, it can’t guarantee people’s rights, and its job is to speak out for those who are getting a raw deal – it might be harder to do that if you are delivering services for, and being paid by, the state. Labour MPs are sceptical because we’re worried the Big Society is just an excuse for cutting public services and leaving people to rely on charity. Of course we want to see more support for community organisations and we support voluntary activity, but decent public services are at the heart of a fairer society.
In an article on August 7th, you described Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform plans as a ” remarkably thin document” with “many worrying gaps”. But at least he is attempting to tackle the problem. Under your government, the welfare system got out of control – so what do you suggest Labour should do to reform the welfare system?
Labour was already doing lots – we weren’t just “attempting to tackle the problem”, we substantially increased lone parent employment and had begun reforms to get more sick and disabled people into work. We introduced a flexible new deal to give people looking for work tailor-made support, we invested in a Future Jobs Fund (which the government has axed) to guarantee all young people education or a job, we brought in the employment and support allowance which is structured to get more disabled people into work. The Tories’ plans do build on this to a degree, but they haven’t said anything about what jobs people are to go to, they haven’t given any commitments about funding to help disabled people in the workplace, and they aren’t making any promises about ensuring people have adequate incomes while they’re looking for work. They say they want to make work pay, and that’s right of course, but if they try to do that by cutting benefits rather than improving pay and in-work support, they’ll be plunging vulnerable people into terrible hardship, causing great anxiety and fear – not the best state of mind to be in if you’re looking for work.
Stepping up the attacks on the coalition, creating proposals to improve social mobility….. What do you want to achieve when you return to Parliament after the summer recess?
We’ve got the Spending Review announcements in October, and I’ll be working to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society don’t bear the brunt of the cuts. I’ll be campaigning for disabled people, for families with children, and for jobs.
On your website, you say that “Labour can resist harmful cuts and support public health through a positive campaign on fast foods.” Does this mean more ridiculously expensive advertisements that do not improve the health of young people?
Hang on – did you read the whole article? What I said was that there are a range of measures we can take to support healthy lifestyles, including regulating fast food outlets (for example forbidding them from opening near school gates), protecting local sporting facilities (the government has axed free swimming for the under 16s – how does that help young people stay healthy?), ensuring young pregnant women can afford a healthy diet, and so on. Advertising and education have a place too, but we need to do more.
Abolition of the 10p tax band, introducing tuition fees, the Iraq War…. What do you think was the Labour Party’s biggest policy mistake?
I wish we’d been bolder. I’m really proud of the progress we made in reducing poverty and halting the rise in inequality, and the public liked what we were doing, but we took our eye off the ball for a couple of years, and we could have got much further by investing in tax credits, pensions, and introducing a living wage if we’d kept up the pace we set in the first part of this decade.
Will you support a referendum on the Alternative Vote?
Yes, that was in our manifesto.