Labour must be bolder as the storm brews

Despite Miliband's fine words, the party still clings to a busted economic model.

"There is a storm coming." It’s the last line from the first Terminator film.  It’s a quote that haunts me.  Its been gathering for a while now – not just in the economy but physically in the environment and emotionally in all of us. A palpable fear of a world going far beyond our control, in which we become lonelier, more isolated, anxious and insecure. We have lost the shoreline and there is, it seems, no captain to steer us home or lighthouse to warn us away from danger.  

Of course the presence of a broken economy looms over everything. It’s not just that times are hard but the best we are offered is a return to business as usual – the booms and the busts, the inequality and the endless slog of the earn-to-spend treadmill – but our politicians cant even deliver on that miserable promise. There is pain but no gain as child poverty rises, health inequalities widen and the budget deficit grows. Poverty is returning to Europe – not my words but those of Jan Zijderveld, Unilever's European boss, on why the company is using marketing strategies designed for developing countries to sell their goods in Europe. A tunnel with no light at the end is a disorientating place to be.

Before you think I’m going to say something cheery we have to face an even bigger threat: that of ecocide. We all know something bad is happening to the planet. The scientific evidence stacks up but we can all see, hear, smell and touch. The weather isn’t right just as the sight of bees in the winter is alarmingly wrong. An economy out of control triggers a planet out of control. The ice melts at record rates. Serious water shortages await. Food prices rise as crops fail because temperatures soar. Energy and mineral prices go through the roof as both become scarcer. The poor are hit first and hardest.  But we all will be hit eventually. No gates can be built high enough to thwart what’s coming.

Is this just more leftie doom and gloom? Maybe. You decide. But bad news usually tends to be even worse news for the left. Lenin is long rumored to have said "the worse it gets the better it gets", in the belief that from misery will come revolution. History doesn’t bear this out. The left thrives on hope and optimism. Caution and conservatism are more likely to spring from hard times.  This is especially the case if the left fails to meet the challenges that confront us.

Fredric Jameson tells us what we already know to be true "that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism". Which, as the new political season is about to kick off, brings us to our own backyard and the gaping chasm between what is and what needs to be in British politics.

There is a double arm lock in place. The crash revealed not just the weakness of the financial system but the incredible hold of neo-liberalism on our national psyche. It has become a truly "hegemonic project" in the words of Stuart Hall, recently interviewed in the New Statesman. To suffer such a potentially fatal blow as the biggest crash ever, but get up and carry on, reminds us of the Terminator films from which this article began. It is a system held firmly in place for many reasons but one is the British electoral system of first past-the-post – which purposefully denies the space for viable alternatives to grow as all the focus remains on a few swing voters in a few swing seats. To secure office means nothing must change.  Surely something has to give between the epochal change taking shape all around us and business as usual at Westminster. But when and how?

Here we turn to Ed Miliband, Labour’s underestimated but still under-performing leader. His instincts are to be bold and radical. But his actions are too timid and cautious. Understandably, he feels hemmed in by his shadow cabinet and the PLP,  too many of whom want just want one more heave - but without any heave. He has been proved right in his attack on "predatory" capitalism but has so far failed to either develop the concept or build the alliances and forces to make it happen.  Labour, in effect, still clings to the same-busted economic model of trickle down from the City. And on public service reform, from welfare to the NHS, Labour paved the way for the Tories to do the same, only worse.  Unless and until Labour breaks from its past, no one will believe it will be any different in the future.

It is still early but look across the channel to France and François Hollande.  Yes, the left can find itself in office when right-wing governments contrive to lose but unless you go through the long hard process of renewing your political ideas and organisation then you never find yourself in a position of real power.  As things stand, coming a close second to the fear of losing the next election is the fear of actually winning it. What would the left do about an economy and an environment that are out of control?  To rebuild Britain we must rebuild not just Labour but a much wider and deeper political alliance for change. That is not just Miliband's job but that of everyone who wants a good society.   

Gramsci advised us to live without illusions, without becoming disillusioned. In these grim times, we must look for the cracks in the system and find inspiration, hope and a toe hold for a better society. From Transition Towns to Community Links, from Citizens UK to 38 Degrees, from Greenpeace campaigners to UK Uncut, from the soon-to-be-launched pressure group  Own It to UK Feminista, from Danny Boyle’s soft progressive sentiment to Joseph Stiglitz's hard new economy by way of Jon Cruddas running the Labour policy review and even, yes, the Liberal Democrats calling for a tax on wealth – a better way can and must be found.

Neal Lawson's column will appear every Thursday on The Staggers.

"The presence of a broken economy looms over everything". Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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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.