Labour’s 2015 fears are puny compared to the Tories’ terror | Polly Toynbee

On the economy, Europe, tax and the NHS, the trajectory is all in favour of Ed Miliband. Now his party can start to dare

Labour is always afraid. Even Tony Blair, triple-election victor, never felt the same easy entitlement exuded by Tories born to believe they belong in power. He was forever looking over his shoulder, expecting the dead rump of a Conservative party to rise up from its grave. Gordon Brown ruled in abject terror – with better cause. New Labour was built on fear as much as hope.

So it was no surprise that this year’s 1,000-strong Fabian conference devoted a session to frightening itself. To send shivers down spines, they brought in Tim Montgomerie, master-manipulator of his party from his powerful ConservativeHome site. He brought these reasons why Labour should tremble.

Start with facing an economy on the up by the next election. The Tory press, now tormenting David Cameron, will swivel its guns on Labour with an election in view: tin hats, take to the shelters, Ed Miliband ain’t seen nothing yet. A referendum pledge will call Ukip voters back to Cameron. A new more leftish Lib Dem leader will summon voters now defecting to Labour. Once Labour lays out its economic policy, disappointed leftwingers will peel off to the SNP, Greens or nowhere. Tories will thunder on immigration and scroungers, appealing to Labour’s core vote. Lynton Crosby will launch a 1992-style “Labour’s Tax Bombshell” campaign so the squeezed middle clutches its wallet for fear of something worse. Be afraid!

All these Labour should – and does – take seriously, while biding its time. It makes no sense now, two years away, to set out tax and spending plans when no one knows what next month, let alone next quarter, will reveal about the state of national finances. Macro and micro disputes about the nature of Labour’s fiscal envelope, its bulk, shape and provenance, will be tusselled over. But make no mistake, Labour will have a cast-iron Tory-proof fiscal straitjacket. To the frequent frustration of Labour supporters, the shadow cabinet shows supreme discipline in making no unfunded, unauthorised pledges. They can oppose current cuts with impunity on the good grounds that this is not what they would be doing now, they would not be hitting the weakest hardest.

The Tories try to pretend that every cut opposed is an unfunded “promise”, but until 2015 is closer Labour need not lay out either the size or contents of its envelope, or its spending plans: how can they know now who will be suffering most by then or where investment will best propel growth? Wait until they see the whites of enemy eyes before shooting off too many policies. The economy must be on a modestly upward path by then, but with a regeneration jobs and growth plan Labour can show how the country need never have sunk so low for so long at such gigantic cost. Miliband is closing the gap on which party is most trusted with the economy: with a way to go yet, the trajectory is upwards.

Immigration remains Labour’s bed of nails. Yesterday’s report from British Future found it the top public concern, confirmed any day on the doorstep. Social attitudes are shaped by alarm that Britain’s front door may be hanging open to the world, weakening willingness to pay for benefits or housing, if it’s for outsiders. Social solidarity depends on securing the boundaries to entitlement. Never mind if figures show immigrants claim less often than the British-born or that less social housing goes to foreigners, in austere times people resent immigrants arriving, with Cameron yesterday unable to say how many Bulgarians and Romanians may come in 2014. He will miss his target that net immigration, taking emigration into account, is no more than 100,000 annual arrivals.

So Miliband was right in his Fabian speech to say that worried voters are not “bigots”, as Gordon Brown called them: Labour “got things wrong” and should “listen”. Acknowledging legitimate fears that immigration takes jobs and depresses low wages is an important step, but damage limitation is all Labour can hope for, with no chance of out-toughing the Tories. The ever-chaotic UK Border Agency always offers oppositions fertile ground, as report after report finds “a poor level of service” with hundreds of thousands of lost files and lost overstayers. With blundering rhetoric on “bogus” students, and visas near impossible to get, top students from India and China turn to the US and Canada instead. That helps Labour make the case for valuable migration: voters will agree the drop in the £8bn students bring to UK universities is serious, but loss of the chance to forge deep contacts with future leaders is madness. No clincher on a toxic topic, perhaps, but a chance to give voters pause for thought.

Labour has indeed plenty to fear – until you stop and tot up Tory terrors: how can they win now when they failed against Brown? A year ago Labour was a shaky two points ahead, but now has a solid 10% lead. “Wide but not deep,” Montgomerie warns, but where would the Tories rather be? Even if they scrape past a triple dip, bumping along the bottom with cuts is no easy election-winner. Meanwhile, Cameron leads his troops into their own minefields, ready to explode what’s left of their reputation for competence. Watch them trigger crises in the NHS, the work programme, universal credit, council tax and disability benefits, while HM Revenue & Customs struggles to claw back overpaid child benefit from the better off – all their own booby traps.

Lost in ineptitude, a government never regains its reputation: ask John Major. Cameron said he’d stop his party “banging on about Europe”, but the Euro virus is back, eating up the Tory body politic. Miliband may not relish finding himself the de facto keeper of the pro-EU flame, but as heavyweights line up to warn against appeasing the lunatic Europhobes, he may emerge the statesman in the end.

Labour rightly worries how to win key southern marginals – but the Tories worry more about the lost north, Midlands, London, the cities and Scotland. People may agree about scroungers, yet still not identify with the nasty party. Cameron’s tax cut for the rich was suicidal, when rents, fuel, travel and food costs soar for the rest. His die is cast, too late to re-brand. But for Labour, everything still lies ahead, an open road. Despite his little list, Montgomerie thinks Labour will be the largest party in 2015. With time on its side, Labour can dare a little more and fear a little less. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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