Labour can't build "one nation" on its own

Miliband needs an alliance for change - Greens, social liberals and trade unions.

Your intrepid reporter has been clocking up the miles, dear reader. First in Bristol for the Greens, then Brighton for the Liberal Democrats and now just back from Manchester for Labour. I’m not going to Birmingham for the Tories, I may be a soft-left pluralist, but I’m not that soft and I’m too dizzy with fringes, receptions and okay, I admit it, drink.  

So what should we make of the progressive political scene after its conference season?  I came out pretty much as I went in, and as Gramsci told me I should always be, “living without illusions without being disillusioned”. The conferences reflect the party system – they are all in long term secular decline. Physically and emotionally they shrink, fewer people with fewer reasons to be there.  Let's take them in chronological order. 

The Greens are a sunny delight.  Brimming with hope, ideas and democracy (their members vote on everything, all the time), they have answers to the problems of the poor getting poorer and the planet burning – but they have absolutely no strategy for doing anything about it. They have won in one place - Brighton – the only four-way marginal on the planet they love so much.  But the planet's temperature is rising faster than Green Party representation in the political system. I know it’s the voting system. But please, my Green friends, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.  You’re not idiots after all.

And the Liberal Democrats? Speaking at three fringe meetings, I witnessed a party whose heart beats to the centre-left but which, up until now, has had little intention of doing anything about it. Of course they have the tough job of sorting out the mess when the public vote for a hung parliament, but they seem incapable of nudging that outcome to be a centre-left coalition, not a centre-right one, next time. They are just sitting tight and hoping, rather than acting.  If social democracy is organised liberalism then they need to get a lot more organised. So, my social liberal friends, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome. You’re not idiots after all.

And finally to Labour. Look, Ed's delivery was amazing and authentic.  What we got was him. The land-grab on "one-nation" Tory territory was sensible electoral politics. He has now got to base camp. He no longer has to survive the day. He is at last the leader of the Labour Party.  Now he has to climb the mountain to get to the summit of power and not just be in office.  But he can’t do it alone.  The climb is too long and too tough.  It has three parts. First, he has to start taking the environment seriously after failing to mention it at all.  The future of the centre-left will be a synthesis of red and green. So it's not just one-nation but one-planet. Second, the big problem facing the left is the separation of power and politics as capitalism went global and politics stayed local. To win back control, we need one-Europe. Again, there was no mention.

Finally, Ed said on Tuesday that he will prove to a sceptical electorate that politics works.  Like Gordon before him, that is a Herculean task that no one person can realistically take on. Gordon got up earlier and earlier to take on the job and consequently achieved less and less.  Too many in Labour still think that the party and the party alone, can usher in socialism from above.

In the week of the death of Eric Hobsbawm, it really is worth remembering that Labour’s forward march was halted 30 years ago. It can’t be re-booted by one person based on the same broken model.  The class forces, the mode of production and not even the threat of the Soviet Union now exist to give Labour the power it once had. We are one-nation made up of people with differing views and a consensus will have to be negotiated, rather than inmposed. So, my Labour comrades, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.  You’re not, after all, idiots.

A one-nation politics will require an alliance for change. Ed will need Greens and social liberals, he will need stronger unions to predistribute, he will need civil society to battle for communities and equality and he will need networks across Europe to tackle the tax havens and the corporate blackmail of the race to the bottom. To create one-nation is a job far beyond Labour’s shrunken capabilities – though it can and must lead.

And one final thought, before we put the progressive conference season to bed. Labour has been polling anywhere between three to 14 per cent ahead of the Tories in the last few days. We will have a better idea of the lie of the land after next week's Conservative conference. But any sense that the economy is recovering in the run-up to 2015 could, as in 1983 and 1992, see big Labour leads melt away. The Tories will say “look, it took longer and was harder than we thought – because of the scale of the mess Labour left – so don’t let the wreckers back in and instead give us the a mandate to see the job through”.  The centre-left has to start producing an alterative story about the good life and the good society – and above all about a sustainable planet - so that no one wants to turn back to a temporary boom built on a continuing social recession. We need a different vision of what it means to live in the 21st century.

There is much to do and little time, but there is an emerging framework - the game is on.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

"The future of the centre-left will be a synthesis of red and green." Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle