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.

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

Douglas Alexander by Dan Murrell

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war