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Douglas Alexander: Labour could face Boris at the next election

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

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

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.