The next step in building a Labour majority

The party must set out a handful of big, signature proposals that exemplify how and why it would govern.

It’s become well known that Labour’s solid lead in the opinion polls is down mainly to the backing of left-leaning former Liberal Democrats. This year, Ed Miliband has proved he can unite socially liberal, egalitarian voters and that there could be enough of them to carry him to Downing Street.

No doubt if Nick Clegg is ejected before 2015, some former Lib Dems will switch back. But it would take a huge reversal for the Conservatives to end up with a majority. In 2010, after all, they could not win despite a seven per cent lead over Labour. Commentators have been slow to catch up with the electoral maths, but in the year ahead the media will have to learn to write of Miliband as a conceivable, even probable, Prime Minister. The Labour Party, however, must not settle for the script the pundits are busy writing, under which it limps into office as a minority party dependent on others to govern.

Instead, in the twelve months ahead, Miliband must turn his attention to potentially sympathetic voters he’s failed to win so far, and there are plenty of them out there. Fabian research found that a quarter of British adults did not vote Labour in 2010 but are prepared to consider the party next time. Encouragingly, their views on the economy and public services are much closer to those of Labour than Conservative supporters. But only one-in-three of this group currently back Labour, despite Miliband’s lead in the polls.

Winning a convincing working majority will depend on attracting more of them over, especially two types of ‘Labour-ambivalent’: people who didn’t vote in 2010 and floating voters who liked Cameron, the man, not his party. These potential supporters are the least ideological of voters so the answer is not a turn to the right, a move which would simply alienate the support Miliband has already amassed. Instead Labour must do two things, re-learn the language of the doorstep and prove it has a plan for Britain.

Too few people will vote Labour if the party presents itself simply an empty vessel for their discontents with a shambolic government. Ambivalent voters will only be won round in sufficient number by a positive alternative and purposeful leadership. This requires Labour to offer substantive promises not just interesting ideas.

So the party needs to move on from talking ‘themes’, as interesting as ‘pre-distribution’, ‘the squeezed middle’ and ‘responsible capitalism’ may be to those of us who attend Westminster seminars. Instead, in the year ahead, Labour must set out a handful of big, signature proposals that exemplify how and why it would govern, what marks it out from the coalition and how people’s lives would change. The candidates for Labour’s plan include free childcare, a National Care Service, a living wage, a job guarantee scheme for the young or a huge housebuilding programme (each with credible funding plans attached).

Miliband’s model must be 1945 or 1979 when the winning party entered the election with a clear policy programme which captured the public zeitgeist but also heralded a rupture with the past. Making big promises may feel risky, but it also shows substance and decisiveness. These are the qualities which need to register with the millions of Labour-ambivalents. Miliband must remember that unless Labour defines itself early, it will offer a blank canvass for the Conservatives to define it in the worst possible light.

Alongside that, Labour needs to reassess how it looks and feels to the ‘ambivalents’. Today its spokespeople still sound like middle-ranking ministers, the parliamentary party a tribe of professional politicians. New Fabian research shows this is all a huge turn-off, especially to people who declined to vote in 2010.

To reconnect, Labour must reimagine itself as an insurgent force speaking for the people, not a political caste speaking at them. Shifting the tone of Labour politics will not happen overnight, which is why it needs to start now. MPs need to learn to listen more, practice the art of normal conversation, and prove they can make change happen in their own constituencies.

Miliband and those around him understand that the practice of Labour politics must change. Now to make it happen he must order his MPs to get out of Westminster, organise locally, listen better and speak ‘human’.

Andrew Harrop will be challenging Labour policy chiefs Jon Cruddas, Lord Adonis and Angela Eagle at the Fabian Society's “The Shape of Things to Come” fringe event this evening.

Ed Miliband waits to speak at the annual Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder