Miliband sharpens his message

The five key points from Miliband's Today programme interview this morning.

Ed Miliband's interview on the Today programme this morning was an important coda to yesterday's speech. Here are five points that jumped out at me.

1. The centre ground has moved itself

I've previously written that Miliband is attempting to shift the centre ground to the left, just as Thatcher shifted it to the right. But it's now clear that he believes the centre has moved itself. He told Jim Naughtie: "We are going to be firmly in the middle ground of politics, but the middle ground is changing.

"The idea that you shouldn't have responsibility at the top of society - it is not a left-wing thing to say that there should be responsibility. It is absolutely in the middle ground."

I think Miliband is right but there's no guarantee that Labour will be the beneficiary of this leftwards shift.

2. A new age of state activism

Miliband rejects the policy defeatism of the last decade, the belief that, in Thatcher's words, "you can't buck the market". He vowed that free markets would no longer "land from outer space" and that the state would change the rules to encourage better practice. His pledge that government contracts would only be given to firms that hire apprentices is the clearest example of this.

Rather than distinguishing between good companies and bad companies as he did yesterday (a stance that smacks of the government "picking winners"), Miliband now emphasises that he is talking about "different business practices."

In a better soundbite than any he delivered yesterday, he said that he was "not anti business" but "anti business as usual."

3. Agreement with Vince Cable

After his rhetorical barbs against Nick Clegg, Miliband noted a rare point of agreement with a Lib Dem minister. He said he supported Vince Cable's attempts to control executive pay: "I agree with some of what he said that, for example, there should be far greater transparency about what companies do, that shareholders should vote on remuneration packages before they are agreed."

4. The limits of public spending

In an admission that was missing from yesterday's speech, Miliband said that social justice would not be achieved through higher public spending, a clear dividing line with Gordon Brown.

"For the Labour Party ... spending is not going to be the way that we achieve social justice in the next decade," he said. "[U]nless you reform our economy, unless we find ways of tackling those issues, unless you get that political economy right we're not going to get the change we want to see."

The biggest problem is that 11 million low-to-middle earners have seen no rise in their real incomes since 2003, as less of what our economy produces has been paid out in wages - and more in profits. The diagnosis is clear but the prescription is not. In time, Miliband will have to offer solutions.

5. Substance will win out

In response to the focus group finding that voters see him as "weird" (discussed by Jonathan Freedland in his column today), Miliband insisted that substance would win out over style. "[T]he times are too serious, the issues are too grave, for us to say well, you know ... it's not about substance, it is about substance. It is absolutely about substance, the problems our country faces are so serious that actually the substance matters."

One was reminded of Gordon Brown's assertion that he was "a serious man for serious times". In an age of presidential politics, Miliband's wager is that his unflashy brand of social democracy will prevail. His fate - and that of Labour - depends on him being right.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
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If Jeremy Corbyn does win, the Greens should shut up shop

If self-described socialists continue to organise outside of the Labour party, they risk depriving the left's main outlet of both talent and voters, warns Michael Chessum.

It could all be rash complacency, but for much of left thoughts have already begun to focus on the reality of a Corbyn-led Labour Party. In the Labour left, the air is swirling with new projects – to back Corbyn up as leader, to organise the membership against parts of the PLP if necessary, to bring Labour into social movements and social movements into Labour. But outside Labour, too, the wider left is waking up to discover the entirely different reality that could be posed by a sharp left turn in leadership. In the Green Party, and especially among those on the left of the party, there is increasing pressure to find a formal working arrangement with Corbyn’s Labour, much of which is reflected in Caroline Lucas’s open letter in the Independent last week. An electoral pact is, apparently, already on the table.

Lucas’s call for an electoral pact is a pretty honest gesture, and will not be entirely uncontroversial in her own party; it is certainly worth much more than, as some more cynical onlookers in Labour have put it, “please don’t run against me in Brighton Pavillion”. It could also be significant in terms of electoral arithmetic: after boundary changes, and in any tight election, Labour will need the 3.8 per cent of the vote that the Greens got at the last election.  But while Lucas and other leftwingers in the Green Party are at least acknowledging the issue, there is a danger that they will avoid a more fundamental question: if Corbyn wins, does it really make sense for self-described socialists in the Green Party to continue a separate existence outside of Labour at all?

Corbyn represents the undeniable arrival of a wider political trend. Across Europe, democratic socialism is undergoing a split: yesterday’s “realists”, who argue for an accommodation with neo-liberal economics and the austerity politics that follows it like clockwork, are on one side; on the other is an assortment of socialists and social democrats who argue for something else. Mass anti-austerity politics has not been a one-party affair in the UK: it was built from the ground up by students, workers and community campaigns; it was road-tested in Scotland; and it has been formulated into policy from a variety of angles, as well as by the Corbyn campaign itself. But now, in the face of the realities presented by five more years in opposition, the vital political expression of the anti-austerity movement seems to have come to fruition in the Labour Party.

This fact will leave one of the largest sections of the organised left – the Green left – disorientated and unsure of what to do. Some socialists and leftwingers in the Green Party are there on the basis of a genuine conviction that the green movement, rather than the labour movement, is their political home. But for the vast bulk of those drawn to the Green left – many of them freshly recruited from recent social movements, others exiles from Labour under Blair – the purpose of the Green left is premised largely on the idea that a credible party-political alternative was needed, and that an anti-austerity surge would be impossible inside the Labour Party. This premise is now ebbing away.

The race is now on for the true believers to convince their periphery of the virtues of remaining in the Green Party after Corbyn wins. Many may yet be convinced, and the Labour left should not be complacent about recruiting a sudden tide of departing Greens.  But for those who joined because they wanted to intervene into mainstream politics from the left, there should be no doubt as to where the big fights will now happen, and where those committed to having them should go.

The incorporation of elements of the radical left’s core constituency into the Greens was always a peculiarity of recent British history. Had it become a sustainable arrangement and grown into a faint British Syriza, it would have made the Green Party of England and Wales unique in Europe, where ecologist and green parties usually sit distinctly and uneasily next to their far-left counterparts.

Much of the uneasiness that characterises the relationship between green parties and radical left groupings in other countries is about ideas, but much of it is also about tribalism – the simple fact that they have separate organisations which need to be different, and which breed differences in approach as often as they reflect them. If either the Green left or the Labour left are not careful, this tribalism will replicate itself, weakening everyone and dividing the left for no particularly coherent political reason.

That is why it is so significant that figures as senior as Caroline Lucas are already making overtures to Corbyn’s Labour. However, there is a danger that behind the positive gestures lie a serious of less friendly assumptions: that any electoral pact is temporary, is designed to build and promote the existence of the two separate parties, and would end upon the introduction of a proportional voting system – a move which, although positive in itself, would further entrench the fault lines between the Green and Labour lefts.

There are numerous ways that this could be overcome which would avoid the Greens simply dissolving themselves or quietly surrendering their politics. If it carried majority support in the party, the Green Party could reach the same arrangement with Labour that the Co-operative Party has: it would have its own structures, and would run Green-Labour candidates in places where it won the selection inside the local Labour Party. If there is no majority for such an arrangement, socialist Greens who want a higher degree of unity with Labour could form a faction, first within the Greens, and, if they continued to lose the argument, they could break away to form a platform in Labour.

As the seemingly impossible becomes a reality, there will be all kinds of realignments in the political space that the Labour left and Green left both claim to occupy – not to mention a potential split on Labour’s right wing. The best hope for a healthy realignment of the British left lies in an honest exchange of ideas; a newly democratised and pluralistic Labour Party which embraces – rather than excludes – political energy formerly to its left; and a willingness on the part of external political forces to orientate themselves towards Labour as the political expression of a mass movement. Those forces should involve the left wing of the Green Party.