Douglas Alexander interview: “The Lib Dems are the enablers of the Tory party”

What is Labour’s strategy for 2015? Rafael Behr sits down with Labour's general election co-ordinator and shadow foreign secretary to find out.

Douglas Alexander by Dan Murrell
Douglas Alexander by Dan Murrell

The dominant feature in Douglas Alexander’s parliamentary office is a bookcase packed with forbidding academic tomes. The only political memorabilia is American: small souvenir placards from a rally in Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. One reads “Fired Up”; the other says simply “Thank You”. The mix – slices of US-style electioneering evangelism, propped up with cerebral volumes of history, theory and strategy – says more than probably intended about the shadow foreign secretary and, as of last October, Labour’s general election co-ordinator.

Alexander shares a compulsive interest in Democratic Party politics with Ed Miliband. Both have spent time in the US and studied every slogan and speech that carried Obama and Bill Clinton to victory. Miliband is advised by Stan Greenberg, a former Clinton pollster. Greenberg is also the co-author, with his fellow Clinton strategist James Carville, of It’s the Middle Class, Stupid, an account of the living-standards crisis among average American households and a call to arms to the left to address their insecurity. It isn’t hard to make the connection with Miliband’s pitch to represent the “squeezed middle”, which feels that the “promise of Britain” to reward each successive generation with rising prosperity is broken.

Alexander’s plan is for Labour to make the leap from identifying those problems to being the sole proprietor of credible solutions. “In the coming days you’ll see the opening of a new front in the election battle as we not only focus on the immediate concerns and anger felt by voters about contemporary concerns but talk about how Britain can earn its way to higher living standards in the future,” he says.

Labour is launching a New Year offensive, with interventions from Miliband and Ed Balls on the economy, Emma Reynolds on housing, Tristram Hunt on education and Rachel Reeves on welfare. The ambition is twofold. First, there is a need to keep up the momentum after the relative success of last autumn’s campaign on the cost of living. There is a broad Westminster consensus that Labour’s attacks on that front, spearheaded with a pledge to freeze energy bills, set the agenda and disoriented the Tories in the final months of 2013. But by Christmas, even Labour MPs were beginning to note the limits of fretting over high prices when voters are sceptical that politicians can do anything tangible to help.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives, after a period of indiscriminate bellowing about Seventies-style socialism, have alighted on the attack that Labour deals in quick fixes while only David Cameron has a “long-term” plan. Rebutting that charge is Alexander’s second mission. “One of the big weaknesses of the Conservative Party is not just their ignorance of and lack of effective response to the cost-of-living crisis but a more fundamental error about what makes for success in the 21st century,” he says. “What we’ve witnessed from George Osborne is a view that says you can essentially cut your way to future prosperity – but even Osborne’s strongest supporters would struggle to articulate his vision for post-austerity prosperity for Britain.”

Labour’s high command now hopes to escalate the cost-of-living argument from an observation about domestic finances to a debate about which party has better understood the needs of the country and the scale of its economic dysfunction. By extension, the election should then be about which side is better equipped to offer remedies. The Tories, Alexander says, are “in hock to a bad philosophy, which is that in the 21st century, trickle-down is the route to modern prosperity”.

If Labour is right, the return of economic growth will not be felt in voters’ pockets, nor will it spur much gratitude towards the Tories in the 16 months that remain until polling day. This gives Alexander confidence that, far from denting his party’s prospects, the recovery under way creates a newly receptive audience for the Labour message – of people who “voted for change in 2010 and now feel shortchanged”.

The Tory response is that plenty of British people still blame Labour for the parlous state of the public finances and, judging by opinion polls, that they rate Cameron and Osborne as a more trustworthy duo to run the economy than Miliband and Balls. Doesn’t the opposition still have a huge task reassuring voters that their money is safe in Labour hands? Alexander doesn’t deny that “tough choices” lie ahead, but he argues that Labour should not be bounced into “plucking numbers from the air” and “playing politics” with the Budget, which, he alleges, is Osborne’s preferred style.

“We’ll set our approach to borrowing, to spending, to taxation, in a sensible way on a sensible timescale.” The distinction Alex­ander tries to draw is between a Labour Party that is prepared to cut where there is “fat” – although it cannot say yet where that might be – and a Tory party that “cuts into economic muscle”.

This refusal to dance to Osborne’s tune (interpreted by sceptics as a willingness to walk into Osborne’s traps) reflects a determination to get across the idea that Labour is readying itself for the challenges of government while the Tories behave like a tactical opposition. The need to underline that distinction is one reason why Miliband has refused to match Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on British membership of the European Union. Alexander steadfastly upholds the stance. Labour’s position, he says, is “reform in Europe, not exit from Europe”, while the Cameron approach risks damaging Britain’s alliances, given that the Prime Minister “spends more time negotiating with his backbenchers than with other European leaders”.

So why leave any doubt? Why not rule out a referendum unless there is a major change to European treaties? The shadow foreign secretary almost obliges, but not quite: “We’ve been consistent in saying the priority is stability, growth and jobs. We don’t believe that to commit now to an In/Out referendum is the right choice for the country. That was our position last month and last year. The party that has been continually shifting its position is the Conservative Party.”

Meanwhile, the Eurosceptic obsession with fighting Brussels obscures what Alex­ander says is the “generational story” of our times – the rise of Beijing. Last year, he edited and published a collection of essays exploring Britain’s emerging strategic challenges, under the title Influencing Tomorrow. Is this, I wonder, the basis of a Labour counterblast to David Cameron’s rhetoric about equipping Britain to compete in a global race? “The difficulty with the Prime Minister’s description of a global race is that, when you scratch the surface, it’s simply a race to the bottom – it’s about lower wages, lower skills and fewer rights of work. That just doesn’t work for an economy like Britain in the 21st century.”

We’re back to the central argument that Labour is the only political force with a considered analysis of why Britain’s economy isn’t delivering prosperity for the many. (My efforts to extract more detail about what the party’s solutions will be are met with invitations to await imminent speeches.) Alexan­der claims to derive still more confidence – but not, he interjects hastily, complacency – from his opponents’ seeming obsession with the past. “The Conservatives and Lib Dems are determined to fight a referendum on the last Labour government, not on the record of this government – and the reason for this is that they have a hopeless record.”

Senior Tories have let it be understood that they expect the next general election to be, for Ed Miliband, a re-enactment of Neil Kinnock’s 1992 defeat by John Major. “They are admitting that their playbook is an election that took place 20 years ago. They are comfortable with the politics of the past, and I’d argue that doesn’t recognise the pretty profound structural change that has happened in our economy,” says Alexander. “The Conservatives are so busy focusing on yesterday, they’re not focused on tomorrow . . . on how elections are won in the 21st century.” He expects this retro-Tory party to look stale and inadequate by 2015, when it will have to take on a “changed Labour Party that has better answers both for family living standards and for national prosperity”.

He rejects the analysis of current polling which suggests that a hung parliament is the likeliest outcome in 2015 (“I’m devising a strategy for a majority government”) and, by extension, he pours cold water on the prospect of rapprochement with the Liberal Democrats. “They are not the oppo­sition to the Conservative Party, they are the enablers of the Conservative Party. If Nick Clegg hadn’t been sitting around the cabinet table, we wouldn’t have had the bedroom tax, we wouldn’t have had the rise in tuition fees, we wouldn’t have had the mistakes we’ve seen in economic policy.”

The one area where he concedes an overlap of interests with Clegg is the negotiations over televised leaders’ debates in the run-up to polling day in 2015. Both Labour and the Lib Dems are ready to sign up to a “333” formula – the three main party leaders in three debates over three weeks. Cameron’s team is dragging its feet. “There’s only one empty chair at the negotiation and it’s the chair that should be filled by the leader of the Conservative Party.”

Alexander accuses the Prime Minister of avoiding his “job interview in front of the British people” and suggests the Tories see the debates as a needless risk, given the advantage they would otherwise have, with more money to spend and more mainstream press support than the other parties. “David Cameron believes that, with deeper pockets and probably more media support, he can avoid the scrutiny and spotlight of TV debates. But I think his silence will look like arrogance in the minds of the British people if he doesn’t take up the offer that has been made. He can run but he can’t hide.”

Douglas Alexander will be in conversation with Rafael Behr at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 5 April

Tags:Labour