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"Who's been sitting in MY chair?" Nick Clegg would be right to feel supplanted as Labour moves further rightwards, groping for Tory votes - that aren't even there.

“Who’s been sitting in MY chair?” Nick Clegg would be right to feel supplanted as Labour moves further rightwards, groping for Tory votes – that aren’t even there. [Picture: Reuters]

One of the things that really rankled about Rachel Reeves’ attempt at Tory talk in yesterday’s Observer was the (observable) fact that she didn’t need to.

Why try to out-Tory the Conservatives when their share of the vote has been going down at every election – among a proportion of active voters that is – itself – reducing?

So in 1955, they managed to snag 49.6 per cent of the votes. In 2010 this had dropped to 36.1 per cent. Turnout was 76.8 per cent in the first instance and 65.1 in the second. They got 38 per cent of all available votes in 1955 and 23.5 per cent in 2010.

Some could point out that Labour’s share in 2010 was only 29 per cent – around 18.8 per cent of all available votes – but this just proves the point. Neoliberal New Labour were very close to the Conservatives in outlook and policy and most people in the UK don’t want that.

But Rachel Reeves indicated that these policies would continue on her watch, and that’s why people reacted so strongly against the Observer interview.

Perhaps Labour should have done some research on this. Yes, the party has its ‘Your Britain’ website, for members to bring forward ideas – but I’ve been there and didn’t like it. It seemed needlessly complicated, with efforts made to get people discussing particular policy areas at particular times when it would have been better to let people just say what they want – when they want – and sort it out at the receiving end.

Besides – that’s just for members. How much research has Labour done on the doorstep? What do people who aren’t aligned to either main political party want? That is where Labour will get its votes.

Even pointing to research by the polling organisations doesn’t help here. Ipsos-MORI famously polled more than 2,500 people about the benefit cap earlier this year, and Iain Duncan Smith was delighted to announce that a significant majority of respondents were in favour.

It was left to this very blog to break the news that only 21 per cent of those respondents knew enough about the cap to give an educated opinion. It would be informative to know how many – of all the respondents, not just the 21 per cent – were actually affected by it.

All of this is a great shame that may worsen into a missed opportunity. There are some terrific ideas around at the moment and all Rachel Reeves – and Labour as a whole – has to do is look around for them.

The Fabian Society website carried an article entitled Welcome to DWP the other day, in which most current proposals for reform of the system were rejected – which is a telling indictment of the state of the nation in itself. The stated reasons were that they would reduce the incomes of poor families (no thank you, Labour! You’re not going to out-Tory the Tories!) or fatally undermine universalism.

But among the ideas that were there, it was suggested Labour needs to reform individual benefits before setting its planned upper ceiling on the benefits budget. To that, I would add that the ceiling needs to be described as a proportion of a Labour government’s overall budget – not limited to a particular sum of money. This is the only way to keep it fair as inflation increases costs and devalues the pounds in our pockets, year on year.

Reducing unemployment, involuntary part time work and low pay by getting people into full-time jobs on a living wage could cut billions off the benefit bill (and boost the tax take at the same time).

For right now, the article stated, La Reeves needs to work on Labour’s perception problem – the false image created for it by an unsympathetic mass media, that it is ‘soft’ on benefits. This is based on misconceptions; only a quarter of social security goes on working-age people without jobs, and benefit fraud is – as has been explained ad absurdum on this site – miniscule.

Before the recession, Labour had cut the number of people out of work and really made work pay (with tax credits – not necessarily a great way forward, but a start – and these could be eased out of service as pressure was exerted on employers to adopt living wages). The social security budget was falling, not increasing. That’s what Rachel Reeves needs to be saying. Labour’s policies were working. The public has been misinformed. A new Labour government could create a winning formula again.

It could happen – if Labour stops being the Party of Plastic Tories and starts being the Party of the Worker once again.