“Red Ed”? Not quite.

Where is the radical candidate who came from behind to win the crown?

Of all the slogans, catchphrases, soundbites and propaganda lines emanating from this Conservative-led coalition government, nothing grates more than George Osborne's High School Musical-inspired "We're all in this together". We're not. The Treasury's own table makes that clear. So, too, does the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

As we approach the end of the year, a time of soothsaying and prophesying, let me make one simple prediction: at the end of this parliament, and as a direct result of this government's policies, the gap between rich and poor will have widened; the rich will be richer and the poor will be poorer. The housing benefit "reforms" are just the tip of the iceberg.

And a new report revealing how FTSE-100 executives received a 55 per cent jump in pay over the past year makes me wonder how they are in this with the rest of us. "Austerity, what austerity?" is the headline over at politics.co.uk. Remember: these are the kinds of people who write letters to the Telegraph urging cuts to public services and fear-mongering about public-sector pensions. Shocking, eh?

But as Jim Pickard notes over at the FT Westminster Blog:

This is why I was frantically seeking political reaction yesterday to the report by Incomes Data Services, which is on our front page today. Criticism came obligingly from Vince Cable, union leaders and from Labour figures including John Denham (Kelvin Hopkins said it was a "moral outrage"). Although it's not quite clear that any of them have a magic bullet to solve the issue.

Ed Miliband's reaction? No comment whatsoever.

It's not as if this isn't a subject close to his heart, supposedly. During the summer he said salary differentials were far too wide – and called for Will Hutton's official review to be extended to the private sector.

So, Ed, where are you? Still running from the "Red" tag? Let's be clear. There is nothing "red" about objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries. In fact, the public would be on your side if you did – polls show voters support a high pay commission and higher taxes on bonuses and object to the growing gap between rich and poor in modern Britain.

Saint Vince of Cable, the Business Secretary, became spectacularly popular in opposition not just because he could dance, but because he relentlessly attacked the excesses and greed of our financial elites. In government too, the sage of Twickenham has been quick to condemn the FTSE fat cats, describing the IDS report as "further evidence that it is time for executive pay to come back down to earth".

I'm amazed – and annoyed! – that Barack Obama over in the United States failed, in the words of Drew Westen, to stake out a "left populist" position on bonuses, pay and corporate excesses in the wake of the financial crisis. And now, the Republicans, fuelled by the popularity of the anti-establishment, right-populism of the Tea Party movement, are expected to retake the House of Representatives from the Democrats in next week's midterm elections.

So I do hope Ed Mili, who ran as an outsider, and to the left of the neoliberal "centre ground" where New Labour had camped out, will learn the lessons of Obama's counterproductive caution and conservatism about finance, bonuses and bailout-related issues. And, as Pickard concludes:

You can understand his determination to shed the Red Ed tag and try to position Labour as close to the centre ground as possible. But those who heard him during scores of summer hustings may now be confused about what he does stand for.

UPDATE:

Given some of the debate and disagreement on Twitter over this blog post, let me clarify a few points:

1) I am still a strong supporter Ed Miliband, who is by far the best, most progressive and inspiring of the three main party leaders. But – shock, horror! – I remain to the left of of "Not So Red" Ed.

2) I do think the left should hold centre-left leaders like Obama, Brown, Miliband, whoever, to account and not give them a pass. See the example of the right/centre right.

3) It is indeed rather boring to see lefties always cry "betrayal" when their leaders disappoint them, but, on the other hand, legitimate criticism of those leaders shouldn't instantly be dismissed, or misdescribed and/or ridiculed as screams of "betrayal". Geddit?

4) I am starting slightly to worry that Ed Mili may have made a rather cautious start to his leadership on the subject of cuts and high pay/bonuses/etc. I suspect that the coalition's fiscal policies will backfire on it and Labour will not be able to exploit the fallout if its own policies/approach/rhetoric are seen as not dissimilar by the public at large. (See Tories and Iraq; see Darling's cuts v Osborne's cuts during election campaign.)

5) Unlike Sunny Hundal and others, I don't think it is unreasonable to expect Ed Mili to come out loudly and passionately on FTSE pay rises today, given the centrality and importance of the High Pay Commission proposal to his victorious Labour leadership campaign only a few weeks ago.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle