Leader: Miliband must not "shrink the offer"

The Labour leader should resist those urging him to take the incrementalist path and offer fundamental reform of the economy and the state.

After Ed Miliband delivered his speech at this year’s Labour party conference, pledging to freeze energy prices if elected, many predicted that the promise would unravel within days. Yet two months later, he retains the political advantage. Growth has returned, with the economy expanding at its fastest rate for six years, but Mr Miliband’s success in shifting the debate towards living standards, which have continued their decline, means the Conservatives have not benefited. The Tories remain torn between seeking to match his offer and desperately seeking to refocus attention on their preferred terrain of the deficit.

The Labour leader’s success was no accident. As Rafael Behr writes in his essay on “Milibandism” on page 32, his policies are underpinned by “a consistent analysis of what is wrong with Britain”. It was on the day after his election as Labour leader that Mr Miliband first used the phrase “the squeezed middle” and was widely mocked. It has proved to be of enduring relevance as the disconnect between the national income and voters’ incomes has become clearer. After stagnating in the years before the crash, real wages have fallen for 40 of the 41 months since the coalition government took office (the exception being April 2013, when high earners collected their deferred bonuses in order to benefit from the reduction in the top rate of income tax). The Labour leader was similarly derided for his interest in concepts such as “responsible capitalism” and “predistribution” but commentators have been forced to acknowledge their significance as they have been translated into the crunchy detail of policy.

With Labour’s poll lead and his personal ratings improving, Mr Miliband can speak with justified confidence of forming the next government. However, if his positioning has created opportunities for Labour, it has also created dangers. Mr Miliband has come under internal pressure to “shrink the offer” and put forward a modest manifesto that limits the room for attack by political opponents. A conflict has opened up inside the leadership between those who believe that the crisis of 2008 demonstrated the need for fundamental reform of the economy and state and those who believe there is little that cannot be resolved through the resumption of growth and the harnessing of its proceeds for public services. It is a battle of ideas between hard and soft reformers. And the choice facing the party is between the transformative politics of Blue Labour and the transactional politics of its Brownite antithesis.

Mr Miliband must side unambiguously with the former. The New Labour years demonstrated the limits of both an unbalanced economy over-reliant on the City and a bureaucratic state indifferent to public-service users. Because of the large fiscal deficit that a Labour government would inherit, reform of both is not just desirable but essential. As Jon Cruddas, the party’s policy review co-ordinator, noted in his speech on “one nation statecraft” in June, “Labour will inherit a state that in many areas has reached the limit of its capacity to cut without transformational change to the system.”

This means devolving power downwards from Whitehall and reorienting services such as the NHS around prevention rather than just cure. Andy Burnham’s proposal to integrate physical, mental and social care into a single budget and single service is perhaps the best example of the kind of reform required. By allowing more patients to be treated outside wards and freeing up to 40 per cent of beds, an integrated service could save the NHS around £3.4bn a year. But as a result of the structural reform required and the upfront costs involved, those in favour of a minimalist manifesto have sought to sideline the idea.

Here, as elsewhere, it is time for Mr Miliband to honour the bold rhetoric that won him the leadership in 2010 and this publication’s support. The Labour leader does not aspire merely to be an efficient manager of capitalism but a reformer in the mould of Attlee and Thatcher. He should resist those urging him to take the incrementalist path.

The Labour leader has come under internal pressure to "shrink the offer" and put forward a modest manifesto. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times