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 and author of the book All Consuming.

Getty Images.
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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.