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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution