We still don't know what Labour's alternative is

The party's policy rethink is hamstrung by a lack of detail.

Editor's note: This is a response to John Denham's blog, "There is no need for Miliband to choose between radicalism and pragmatism", itself a response to Neil's essay in the current issue of the New Statesman, "What is Milibandism?"

Dear John

I’m pleased (and flattered) that you took the time to respond to my article.

You write that

The emerging consensus among those Ed has promoted is that there is no foreseeable point where the public spending taps are turned back on. The cost of an ageing population, the need to invest, and the impossibility of increasing taxes for the squeezed middle will see to that.

This is good to hear, and your analysis is obviously right. As Liam Byrne famously pointed out, “there’s no money left”.

And yet, in Ed’s speech to the Scottish Labour Party in March he said: "this Tory-led government is making it worse…Higher VAT… Cuts to tax credits…The freezing of child benefit”, and promised that the next Labour government would introduce “a proper cap on rail fares".  Now those are either multibillion spending commitments, or they are meaningless.  Either is bad.

It’s the same with other shadow ministers. John Woodcock has proposed an extra £3bn in transport spending.  Ed Balls has complained that "The benefits cap will lead to more homelessness, the way it is designed", and that "what they are doing on disability living allowance is a big mistake." And yet we don’t really know what Labour’s alternative would be. 

You write that my "belief that Labour's spending instincts are bound to spill out misreads the way Labour's debate is going." I hope you are right.  But is Labour on really track to convince the voters that it will control spending?

You write that Ed is:

Confident that the economy can be reshaped by an active state enabling successful private business; an ambition that goes beyond the odd token grant and investment that passes for Osborne's "industrial strategy. 

You even promise "the construction of a different economy."

Wow. This is Big Stuff.  But how, how, how? 

In what ways would your "industrial strategy" be different from "handing out the odd token grant," which is what government of all hues have done for decades?  Indeed, you praise Peter Mandelson’s time at BIS, which involved doing more or less exactly that.  You write that, "The cost of tax credits rose in an economy producing too many poorly-paid jobs."  Whereas under Labour there will be millions more high paid jobs because…? Answers on a postcard, please.

You write that

O’Brien is right to say there are many issues that remain challenging for Labour, not least welfare. But it’s telling that he sees this as a tactical issue for the Tories.

Actually I see much deeper welfare reform as a good thing in itself, a way to reduce unemployment, and also a way of liberating funds to spend on tackling the root causes of poverty and economic underperformance.  But, yes, it is also an unsolved political problem for Labour.

You talk about "Shifting investment from tax credits to affordable child care, or landlords' rents to bricks and mortar. Rewarding those who work and contribute over those who didn’t."

These are really interesting germs of policy ideas, but so far they’re undeveloped.

Tax credits were supposed to be one of Labour main tools to reduce unemployment.  But in the end the overwhelming majority of tax credit spending has gone on child tax credit (CTC) which is really a bigger, means-tested version of child benefit, and does nothing to encourage work. Redirecting this spending to things like childcare which support work would be a good idea (shifting it to Working Tax Credits or cutting employers national insurance – the so-called ‘jobs tax’ - would be other possibilities). But the current child poverty measure (which Labour legislated for) would score a shift from CTC to childcare spending as a massive rise in child poverty (because CTC is income, and childcare a free service). Labour would have to either take the political hit from this, or come up with a better measure.

Shifting spending from housing benefit is obviously much harder.  You need to move nearly 700 people off housing benefit altogether to finance the building of one council house.  Housing benefit claimants are only a quarter of private renters, so squeezing spend won’t bring down prices that much, and a little bit more spent on social housing certainly won’t be enough to hold down soaring rents. Given that the majority of new homes are privately built, Labour needs much greater clarity on how it would get the private sector to build much, much more.  There is a huge opportunity for Labour here, as Labour voters are less likely to be home owners.  But I think that opportunity is yet to be tapped.

A more contributory welfare system in which what you get out reflects what you paid in is a great idea.  But how will we get people to run up the pots of savings that this requires?  We could top slice other types of welfare spending, but one way or another the money needs to come from somewhere. So far I don’t think I have heard where?

A big but neglected part of the welfare debate is about how job centres work and what we ask from claimants in return for their benefits ("conditionality" in the jargon).  We know from other countries that asking more from claimants can reduce unemployment.  There is more that can be done to identify the needs of each claimant, and tailor help and conditions like work requirements accordingly. 

With this in mind I thought that the section on welfare in The Shape of Things to Come was a bit dissapointing, particularly the rejection of the idea that stronger and better conditionality has a big part to play.  Labour should be thinking hard about this not because welfare is a political problem for the party, but because conditionality is a big part of the answer to unemployment.  It’s worth recalling that at the end of Labour’s time in government there were 4.6 million people on the main out-of-work benefits – almost exactly the same number as when the time series for worklessness started in 1999. Now the lack of money makes radical thinking on this front even more vital.

A year ago, a former Blair-era minister told me that he was worried that Labour would win the election, but then wouldn’t have a clue what to do differently if elected. 

A year on, Labour’s policy rethink so far consists of some interesting ideas, a lot of soaring rhetoric, but very little detail yet. The general election is probably still a little way off.  But isn’t it amazing how the time flies by.  Is Labour going to be ready in time?

Under Ed Miliband, Labour has promised "the construction of a different economy". Photograph: Getty Images.

Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

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.