Douglas Alexander: Labour could face Boris at the next election

Labour needs to take the London mayor "seriously", says the shadow foreign secretary.

For this week’s New Statesman I have interviewed shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. It was a wide-ranging conversation that will make interesting reading to anyone anticipating Labour’s annual conference next week and looking for some insight into the ideas and strategic thinking going on at the very top of the party. As always there was much more said than could be accommodated in the pages of the print edition. So here are is the bonus 12” club mix; or maybe the epic unplugged set. (Do they still even do 12” remixes these days? … showing my age.)

First, something that I expect will raise a few eyebrows on Labour and Tory benches. On Boris Johnson:

I think its time that we take Boris seriously. It is not yet a probability but it is a possibility that he will lead the Conservative party into the next general election. I was standing in a lift in Westminster with two Conservative MPs talking about Boris hours after the launch of ‘Conservative Voice’ [a new campaign group of Tory MPs]. This is a restless party looking for leadership and not finding it from Cameron, so I think we as the Labour party need to take Boris seriously.

On the nature of Boris’s appeal:

He’s associated with a spectacularly successful Olympic games. He’s also managed to put a smile on quite a lot of commentators’ and quite a lot of voters’ faces quite regularly and that’s because people feel he doesn’t play by the rules and doesn’t conform to type. And in different ways that’s what Ed has also done - he doesn’t conform to all of the past stereotypes people have had, but there’s an authenticity there that I think voters ultimately want.

Was it also the case that Boris won in London because he had a very beatable opponent?

I think some of Ken Livingtsone’s comments, trying to sort voters into blocks, were not just unwise but wrong. And I think that if you set yourself up as a personality politician then there are always risks when you’re up against a very attractive politician, which is what some London voters decided Boris was.

Another point that stands out is Alexander restating in very clear terms his party’s commitment to fiscal discipline. Since there is more space online, I’ll let the fuller quotes speak for themselves:

Will the year’s ahead involve difficult spending choices, switch-spends; a fundamental look at how government spends its money in changed circumstances with strong fiscal head winds? Of course it will. But Ed balls, Ed Miliband, myself, the rest of the shadow cabinet  are unified on that. And when Ed Balls gets booed at the TUC or when Ed Miliband says [in a New Statesman interview] it would be “crackers” to make promises he can’t keep, both Eds are speaking for all of us in saying that fiscal realism has to be the foundation of economic radicalism in the years ahead.

I asked whether he was implying that it was politically not such a bad thing for Ed Balls to be seen getting heckled by a union audience if it showed his budgetary rigour. The answer:

What’s important is that we have a Shadow Chancellor willing to level with audiences, whether within the labour movement or beyond the labour movement. That seems to me to be vital for our task of coming back in one parliament. And, as I say, my strong sense is that Ed Balls was speaking for all of us when he said I’m not going to say one thing in one room and one in another.

Alexander was also keen to support Ed Miliband’s analysis that the problems facing the economy are more profoundly structural than the Conservatives appear to realise – and that they predate the financial crisis.

Ed understood earlier than some that the old economy is not coming back. He has started a conversation with the country about the kind of economy that we’re going to need. But there is a second point: Ed believes deeply that ideas matter in politics and I agree with him. The most telling phrase uttered by David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party was when he was asked ‘why do you want to be prime minister?’ and he replied ‘because I think I’d be good at it’. That obviously shows that confidence and competence are not the same thing and that just because you’re born to rule it doesn’t mean you’re very good at it. But it tells you something deeper as well – it tells you that he hasn’t thought very deeply about the problems of the country and I think that explains the hollowing out of David Cameron’s leadership that we’ve seen over the last six to eight months.

The fundamental difference between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, between Labour and Conservative is that they want to run the country and we want to change the country …

… We need to level with the public that the economy is changing – routine work and secure jobs are tougher to come by than they were 10 ,20, 30 years ago. That’s why it’s important that Ed has started this conversation. Since 1989, two billion more people have entered the international labour market. So the question for me and my constituency is: how do we equip that woman with the childcare that she needs to earn a decent living for her family, how do we make sure she has access to a mortgage or decent rented accommodation if she’s worried about losing her home. How do we make sure that there is decent care for her parents or for her children so she’s able to carry on in work.

Alexander expects Labour to face a relentlessly negative campaign from the Tories:

I believe that so profound has been the economic error by the Conservatives in this parliament that by the time of the next election all that will be left to their messaging will be negativity and division. That’s not a winning formula, I don’t think. But we need to be ready and we need to recognise that they will throw whatever mud they can to try and cling on to office.

Specifically, I suggested, they will blame disappointing economic performance on unforeseen turbulence in the eurozone and that there will be more aggressive rhetoric on the undesirable impact of immigration and benefit “scrounging”.

The reply:

The conservatives are in the excuses business, not the explanation business and that’s why we need a different quality of debate … If we are facing circumstances of economic crisis as profound as are confronting Britain today, it’s incumbent on politicians to recognise that politics as usual doesn’t cut it.

On immigration:

Ed was absolutely right to say this is an issue; that we didn’t anticipate the extent of inward migration from Eastern European countries immediately after they acceded to the EU and that that did have an impact on wage levels and communities where significant numbers of people moved and joined the labour force. But he was also right to recognise that in many communities these immigrants have made an immense contribution to the tax base and to the productivity of the local economy.

On Europe and referendums:

Ukip is living rent free in George Osborne’s head at the moment, but that’s not a good way to frame a foreign policy or an approach to Europe. I’ve said previously that Labour could not or should not make a decision now about referendums when we don’t now the shape or character of Europe in few months, let alone a few years … The Conservatives are vulnerable to making decisions to negotiate with their own backbenches more than to negotiate with European partners because the truth is that 60 or 70 hardline eurosceptics were elected onto the Conservative benches in 2010. David Cameron used to claim that he had changed the party. Europe is one of the issues that shows the Conservative party is changing David Cameron.

The big challenge for our kids’ generation is the rise of Beijing not the reach of Brussels. That has to be the starting point of understanding Britain’s place in the world. That’s one truth. A second truth is – in that changing world, if you’re not strong in your neighbourhood, you’re not strong globally. Third, when we are struggling to find any growth in Britain at the moment, the idea that we would spend the coming years shrinking our home market from 500 millions consumers to 60 million consumers just doesn’t make sense. So there are big powerful arguments for why Britain’s future is best served from within the European union but that case needs to made alongside a clear-headed pro-reform, pro-British view of how Europe needs to change.

On the electoral challenge for Labour in finding a new audience and winning back lost voters:

I don’t buy the argument that says the way Lab can win a majority in 2015 is simply to find five million Labour voters who were lost after 97, partly because the best estimate is that 1.5 million of them are now dead. They won’t be voting. Second, that thesis suggests those votes were all lost to Labour’s left. If you actually look at the numbers 1.6 million of those voters did vote Lib Dem, but 2.5 million of them moved to parties of the right: to the Conservatives, the BNP, to Ukip. That’s why our message and our machine must be directed not towards 5 million voters but towards 40 million voters.

When asked whether that meant signalling more willingness to work with the Lib Dems:

There’s nothing immoral about parties working together and in that sense the difficulty for the Lib Dems is that many of their voters sincerely saw themselves as centre-left and are now disoriented, disappointed, incredulous that they find themselves part of a centre-right political project.  Lib Dem leaders spend a lot of time pretending they’re the opposition when in fact they’re the enablers of George Osborne and the Conservative party.

As Labour we need to understand that many Lib Dem voters feel a deep sense of disappointment with the party they voted for and reach out to them and encourage them to vote Labour. Both Labour and Lib Dems have at times in our history suffered from an unattractive sense of moral exceptionalism. We are vulnerable in the Labour party, or have been in the past, to seeing Lib Dems as Labour people who just got lost on the way to the committee room. And I think we need to respect the fact that we need to reach out and embrace those voters who are looking for a progressive home, thought they had found that in Lib Dems and now feel disoriented and politically homeless.

What about ever signalling some readiness to agree with things the Conservatives are doing? The answer:

The biggest foreign policy decision we faced in opposition was whether to back the government on Libya and, of course, in the long shadow of Iraq that was a genuinely difficult decision for Ed and me. But I think we should be big enough, especially on issues of national security, that if the government is getting it right, we recognise it and accept it …

That was the approach I tried to take with Iain Duncan Smith when I was shadowing him at the Department for Work and Pensions. Where we think the government is getting something right we should be willing to accept it because that gives credence to the very trenchant criticism that they deserve on many, many areas of policy … IDS is a sincere man, he’s just sincerely wrong on certain aspects of policy.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said "it's time that we take Boris seriously". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.