Leader: Labour has a bold economic programme but can it win the people’s trust?

Mr Miliband has reminded us again of his talents as a rhetorician but it is his party’s conduct in the next year that will determine whether he is rewarded with the chance to serve.

Ed Miliband left the Labour party conference in Brighton in a stronger position than when he arrived. After a dismal summer for the party, his hour-long, conversational speech on Tuesday 24 September, delivered from memory and without notes, attempted to engage with most of the criticisms levelled at his deliberative and sometimes ponderous leadership. His good speech, as well as the sunny weather on the south coast, seemed to raise the morale of many Labour MPs, who had seemed pessimistic at the beginning of the conference.
Confronting accusations of a policy vacuum, Mr Miliband outlined a series of signature commitments aimed at easing what he and his colleagues call the “living standards crisis”: prices, he said, had risen faster than wages in 38 of the coalition’s 39 months. With his populist pledge to freeze gas and electricity bills until 2017 – resisted robustly by the energy companies, which warned of possible power shortages and blackouts – he attempted to address what polls show is one of voters’ greatest concerns. The pledge also offered a powerful dividing line with the Conservatives, who rejected the proposal out of hand. With this measure, the Labour leader has begun to articulate what he means by phrases such as “responsible capitalism” and signalled his intention to use the power of government to shape markets in favour of consumers.
Similarly bold were his promises on childcare and housing. His plan to require all primary schools to offer care from 8am to 6pm would benefit the economy by enabling more parents, particularly women, to return to full-time employment – a model successfully pursued in the Scandinavian countries. On housing, where the coalition has inflated demand through the Help to Buy scheme, Mr Miliband turned his attention to the fundamental problem of supply. His pledge to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 and to punish land-banking developers by forcing them to “use or lose” their land would, if implemented, go some way to mending Britain’s broken housing market. After so skilfully mobilising opposition to the “bedroom tax”, he was also sensible to pledge to repeal this punitive and unpopular measure.
However, in response to those who fear that he simply wishes to pursue what his brother, David Miliband, once characterised in these pages as a programme of “defensive social democracy”, he also spoke ambitiously of creating an integrated health and social care service and of winning a “race to the top” through a broad expansion of apprenticeships, more in line with the German model.
Yet, for Labour, the greatest challenge remains to persuade a sceptical electorate to favour it over the Conservatives when Mr Miliband’s poll ratings are so poor and the party is not trusted to manage the economy. Where the speech fell short was in its failure to reassure the public that Labour has learned from its past mistakes and can once again be entrusted with the nation’s finances.
The party’s perceived fiscal profligacy is perhaps the greatest obstacle to its election but Mr Miliband mentioned the deficit just once in his speech. Until Labour wins back economic trust – if, indeed, it can do so before the general election in 2015 – the danger is that voters will doubt its ability to deliver its ambitious and, in some cases, expensive policies of transformation without alienating business and again imperilling stability.
Last year, Mr Miliband’s bravura conference performance in Manchester, in which he evoked the spirit of Disraeli, raised hopes that Labour could establish itself as a government-in-waiting. Yet because of the party’s failure to sustain the momentum that followed and to flesh out the meaning of its leader’s “one nation” theme, this opportunity was wasted. With a sharper slogan – “Britain can do better than this” – and a set of emblematic policies, the shadow cabinet now has the makings of a coherent programme. Mr Miliband has reminded us again of his talents as a rhetorician but it is his party’s conduct in the next year that will determine whether he is rewarded with the chance to serve, or whether parliament will remain hung.
Ed Miliband's bravura conference performance in Manchester raised hopes that Labour could establish itself as a government-in-waiting. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.