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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.