The prelude to today’s UK budget has been punctuated by Liberal Democrats and Conservatives battling over their tax-cutting credentials for the highest and lowest paid. Some weak posturing aside, the Coalition has been relatively silent on how they intend to promote growth and reduce unemployment. Whilst opinion polls show some movement in the number of people feeling that austerity has gone too far, too fast, there remains a great deal of support for the “paying your credit card bill off” narrative that the Conservatives have clung to since the General Election.
Tackling this simplistic approach to the UK’s financial problems has proven a real issue for our principal competitors, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Whilst in many ways they sing from the same songbook as the Greens on reducing inequality and safeguarding jobs, they have triangulated their policies to suit the electorate for so long that faith in their commitment has been blunted and their support for business is too engrained in the public’s mind. One party is constrained by its record and the other tainted by their political marriage to the Conservatives. Yet one of the reasons they enjoy greater political support than the Greens is by covering more bases and interest groups than we have, although in the longer term we can see how that compromised their reputation with the voters. How can we broaden our support without being seen as opportunistic?
As a party that struggles to hold the media’s attention for more than a few scant seconds at a time, our difficulty is that we rarely get beyond calling for anything other than a boost for Green jobs and industries. It’s a smart call, marrying our unique selling point to the most crucial problem facing the country, but its appeal is limited. We need to deepen our “employment” messaging beyond this area though, as for the majority of voters, these sort of green jobs are an unknown quantity and don’t resonate easily with those experienced in working in customer service, call-centres and the public sector as something they might be able to take advantage of.
Small business creation and incubation is a perfect fit for us – playing to our strengths of investing in local, carbon-efficient businesses. Focusing upon local distinctiveness and proposing an enabling business environment that facilitates growth alongside decent protections for the low paid (such as the strides Brighton and Hove Council are making in rolling out a Living Wage across their city), could be a real vote winner. Showcasing our support for industries not usually associated with the party, that are good employers and represent credible local success stories the community can get behind could transform our anti-business reputation into something more representative.
As a political party, we talk much more about taxing the rich and not enough on the choices we would make to rebalance our spending, beyond the abolition of Trident. It ties us to the straitjacket of fiscal irresponsibility that Labour is currently trying to disentangle itself from and leaves an impression that we have a paucity of ideas or refuse to face hard choices. Unfairly or not, Green policies (especially those to combat climate change) have a reputation for being affordable mainly to those with sufficient financial resources to make informed choices, rather than the majority of people who make daily judgement calls as to the most effective way to keep their head above water. That impression of us is sufficient enough to prevent even a cursory examination of our offer to many voters.
A new report from the Fawcett Society is highlighting even more starkly that women are facing the impact of cuts more keenly than anyone else, placing the greatest pressure on those who traditionally undertake the majority of informal labour. I would argue that we tailor our policies and stance on austerity to tackle this injustice head on and begin to talk more explicitly to the concerns and priorities of this group, in language that makes sense to them.
As today’s budget unfolds, I’m sure we’ll be seeing acres of comment and analysis of Osbourne’s prescription for the economy, much of it likely to horrify progressive voters. It shouldn’t need a budget to come around however, for the Green Party, both nationally and in local parties, to really start engaging more broadly on how to break through and grab the public’s attention with an exciting employment, growth and investment agenda.