Where next for Ed? Mehdi Hasan on a fraternal dispute

The Labour leader ended a bad January on a high - and then brother David intervened.

Ed Miliband had a bad, bad January - but ended on a high. Having fallen behind in the polls, been attacked by his guru, got his message mixed up on cuts and gaffed on Twitter, the final few days of the month saw him help force RBS chief executive Stephen Hester turn down his million-pound bonus and put Cameron on the defensive, and then put in a strong performance against the Prime Minister in Tuesday's Commons debate on Europe ("Ed Miliband was very good," admitted the frequently-critical Simon Hoggart) and at PMQs, on the first day of February, on the subjects of bank bonuses and NHS reform .

Attacking the bankers - over excessive bonuses, lack of transparency, failure to lend and the rest - has proved to be a boon for Ed M. Recent polls show Labour has slashed the Tories' 5-point lead and I suspect we'll continue to see a mild uptick in the party's poll rating in the coming days and weeks. Why? Because, in the current climate, left-populism works. The public wants the political elites to take on the financial elites. It's not rocket science - and I'm not sure how many times some of us have to make this rather simple and obvious point to a cautious Labour leadership.

In October 2010, for example, after Ed M failed to make any public comment whatsoever on a 55 per cent jump in pay for FTSE 100 executives, I wrote:

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.

Eighteen months later, Ed M is starting to reap the rewards of "objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries". Here's political editor Joe Murphy in Monday's Evening Standard:

Ed Miliband has scored a big victory that will give his leadership a much-needed boost.

But Ed mustn't lose momentum on this issue - as he did on phone-hacking last summer, where he dropped the baton and allowed Cameron to kick the Murdoch/media reform issue into the long grass. The Labour leader has to own the issue of high pay - and keep banging on about it whenever he gets the chance. It isn't that hard, to be honest. For instance, why doesn't he come out loudly and publicly against the new bonus scheme being demanded by Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins, whose taxpayer-funded basic salary is already £560,000? Why doesn't he position himself at the head of a campaign to demand RBS refrains from paying out multi-million-pound, taxpayer-funded bonuses to members of its investment banking division, as is expected to happen in the not-too-distant future?

Then there's the issue of the cuts and Labour's various contortions on the subject. As a must-read, myth-busting Guardian leader points out today:

After just one year of full-blown austerity, marked by student occupations and rioting, it is sobering to be reminded that 94% of Mr Osborne's departmental spending cuts are still to come, along with another 88% of the planned reductions to benefits.

Ed M mustn't panic. The cuts have yet to fully kick in - let's see how popular (and/or effective) austerity measures are in 12 or 18 months time. Now is not the time for mixed-messaging on spending cuts, or cutting and running, otherwise Labour won't be able to reap the electoral rewards of having opposed them once the public turns - and it will turn, mark my words - against slash-and-burn, austerity-obsessed, 1930s-style economics. After all, as David Blanchflower notes in this week's magazine, the "Osborne collapse" has well and truly begun.

It is unfashionable, I know, but I've never bought into the nonsensical line from the right-wing press that Ed Miliband can't win, won't win, will never be prime minister, blah blah blah. It isn't just that, as Lord Ashcroft of all people has pointed out, he coud get "close to 40 per cent of the vote [in 2015] without needing to get out of bed". It's much more than that: Ed, at his best, brightest and boldest, understands the issues that matter to the great British public (see "squeezed middle", high pay, vested interests, etc) and, from time to time, displays excellent political judgement (phone hacking, the Hester bonus, shadow cabinet elections, etc). It's too soon to write him off. Meanwhile, the past few days have shown how unpredictable and capricious modern British politics can be: against the odds, Ed has recovered after his awful start to the year.

So, will big brother David's intervention in this week's New Statesman harm him? It wasn't, as some have claimed, an out-and-out attack on his younger brother. Nonetheless, the elder Miliband clearly isn't happy about the direction of the Ed-led Labour Party, isn't afraid to let people know that he isn't happy and surely must have known how a febrile, splits-obsessed media pack would respond to his detailed, if somewhat dry, critique of the views not so much of Ed himself but one of Ed's chief supporters, Roy Hattersley - and, that too, five months after the latter's original article on social democracy appeared in Political Quarterly. (On a side note, and to be fair, it is worth pointing out that David does volunteer four positive and named references to Ed in his NS piece.)

I'm never quite sure what David's game-plan is; what it is that he wants. The Times's Sam Coates had the best line on Twitter:

All DM's old tricks - setting up straw men (Hattersley) to knock down, loyal and disloyal simultaneously, over-complicated. Why do it?

Indeed. Whatever your view of David's intervention, the timing is bad for Ed, coming as it does after his strong performances at PMQs and in the Commons debate on Europe.

Perhaps Ed Miliband is just an unlucky leader. Not according to Steve Richards, in today's Independent. Steve makes a counter-intuitive but powerful argument in his column:

David Cameron's misguided attempt to secure an easy symbolic hit by removing the knighthood of a single banker shows how rocky the ride will be. As I have argued before, Cameron and George Osborne are not the brilliant tacticians or strategists mythology insists they are. They are middle ranking, and when they try to be too clever by half, they slip towards the relegation zone. Voters do not care a damn about the sensitivities of a greedy, incompetent banker, but they can spot a red herring as big and bright as this one.

The failure of this populist gesture shows that the issue demands more clear thinking than a bit of Bullingdon Club game-playing, and points to massive challenges for both Cameron and Ed Miliband in the coming years. For Cameron, the issue confirms my view that he is an unlucky leader.

Yet, according to Steve:

It might not seem this way to him, or to his taunting critics, but Miliband is a lucky leader. He has made a mark in responding to these events, demanding an inquiry into newspapers, while Cameron has still clung to the idea of protecting the old order, and outlining in general terms the case for a new moral capitalism. In doing so, he has had more practical impact on the course of current tumultuous dramas than any recent leader of the opposition.

He rightly concludes:

Cameron and Osborne are awestruck that in every opinion poll voters placed Tony Blair precisely on the centre ground. They want to be in the same place as their hero at the next election. But what it means to be on the centre ground is changing fast now and will have changed even more by then.

(On a related note, my colleague Rafael Behr makes the opposite case to Steve in this week's New Statesman cover story, entitled "Lucky Dave".)

 

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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.