PMQs review: a win for Cameron as he ridicules "predistribution"

The Labour leader's big idea is dangerously vulnerable to mockery.

David Cameron, a man not known for his attention to detail, armed himself with several powerful statistics at today's PMQs. Private sector employment, he boasted, had risen by a million since the election, while the deficit had fallen by a quarter. In response, Ed Miliband pointed out that borrowing is already 25 per cent (£9.3bn) higher than at this point last year, with George Osborne set to abandon his golden debt rule.

Cameron, naturally, replied that, if Miliband was so worried about borrowing, why did he want to increase it? Miliband should have replied that while Labour would borrow for growth, the Tories are borrowing due to recession. But, perhaps fearing that PMQs wouldn't allow for an explanation of Keynes's paradox of thrift, he simply declared that borrowing was "rising on his [Cameron's] watch". It was at this point that Cameron turned his attention to "predistribution", the zeitgeisty concept Miliband discussed in his speech last week. It meant he said, borrowing a quip from Danny Alexander, that "you spend the money before you actually get it, and I think you'll find that's why we're in the mess we're in right now." Seated next to Miliband, Ed Balls, who yesterday described "predistribution" as "a good idea looking for a good label", looked visibly unnerved.

As a result, Miliband's next question - "Is he going to be a beneficiary of the 50p tax cut?" - couldn't help sounding rather desperate. Cameron failed to answer it, just as he failed to say whether the government would rip up its debt target, but his replies were sufficiently strong for this to be of little consequence.

The man who invented predistribution, Joseph Hacker, had, Cameron observed, written a book called The Road To Nowhere. But Miliband "didn't need to read it, he's there already." Rather optimistically, the Labour leader again asked the PM whether he would benefit from the abolition of the 50p rate ("a question he will have to answer between now and April"). But, today at least, buoyed by the cheers of Tory MPs, Cameron could happily ignore him.

Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in central London, on September 5, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.