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
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.