Budget 2010 -- first steps to a new decade

Labour has to show it has a plan for global growth. And that starts with jobs.

The Chancellor's Budget message is clear: we are optimists about Britain's future. We believe that Britain can win in global markets. And here at home, the right decisions -- about jobs, tax and public services -- can spread that wealth fairly.

It's a message that matches the mood on the doorstep. And it sets the scene for the decades ahead. Let me explain.

Knocking on doors throughout the winter, I've felt the national mood change. People have gone from thinking a week ahead -- would they still be in a job? Would their hours be cut again? Would another shift get taken off? -- to thinking about the future.

They're asking how we will help them get and keep good jobs. Will they and their kids get public services that help them turn their aspirations into success? And can we regain and retain a sense of community in a world which is changing before their eyes?

These are themes that must be taken forward in our offer to the British people at the next election, which, as Gordon Brown says, will be the first election of the global age.

Globalisation has dominated the years since I left university. Before the crash, the past decade had seen the greatest lift in world trade and world wealth since the Second World War. This great global growth helped Britain grow faster than Japan and continental Europe for the first time in a century.

But the 200-plus residents' meetings, the school-gate surgeries and street surveys I've done in Hodge Hill have taught me a great deal about how people in my constituency think about their community's connection with this new "globalised" world. And it's fair to say that they are not exactly head over heels in love with it.

 

Looking for a payback

Unless we share the "prizes" of globalisation with those who feel like they are paying a "price", people will not vote for it. In Europe, the far right is on the rise. In the US, only 59 per cent support the idea of the free market. There is nothing inevitable about "open".

So, looking ahead from this Budget, we need a manifesto for global gain -- not global pain -- for the aspirational voters who decide the outcome of every election fight. And that starts with jobs.

In Hodge Hill, residents are not just interested in work that simply pays a wage. They want work that paves the way to a better life for their family.

They know that might require them to improve their skills. And they are happy to do it. But they want to know it will have a payback. Which is why skills have to be part of our agenda.

New Labour should be prepared to strike a new bargain with business. We should say: We will invest in the innovation and infrastructure that make you more profitable. But if your workers get skills that help your profit grow, then you should give them a pay rise. This will require us to forge a new partnership with business whereby employees can make progress and get the rewards.

Second, we have to show how public services will add to people's ability to get on and have the quality of life they are aspiring to. As I have argued before, I don't think that means we can limit our agenda to more and more choice.

What people really want is control. Sometimes that means being able to choose a different GP, or a better school a bit further away. But sometimes it means more power to change the school that is at the end of the road, or the beat patterns and priorities of your neighbourhood police team.

We have transformed the quality of public services in Britain. We should be so proud of this that we should never flinch from trumpeting what's changed.

But I think we can also admit that we have spent too long pushing an account of "supply-side" reform in public services and too little about giving users more power. "Choice" promised more than it could deliver because it came without greater control and personalisation. More emphasis on "demand-side" reforms -- guaranteed entitlements to service, online access and customisation, individual budgets -- which in turn shape public-sector provision, must be next.

Third, let's be the party of strong communities. I serve a very multi-ethnic community. But every corner of my community would be more comfortable with change if the people felt the place they lived would still feel like home in ten years' time. People know nostalgia does not pay the bills. But they treasure familiarity. Of habits. Or traditions. Of strong connections with their neighbours.

Yet, right now in Britain, we drastically underestimate how much we have in common with our neighbours: there is no moral schism today in Britain because, overwhelmingly, the law-abiding majority is not only bigger than it has ever been, but it shares some common causes.

Like being a law-abiding neighbour. Like getting a job if you can work. Like being a good parent. Labour is the party of these ideas. But we must also be more imaginative about ways of renewing civic life -- as our great-grandparents were when they built Britain's urban fabric in the 19th century.

 

A network with a purpose

Policymaking in government can help foster a greater sense of community and reciprocity. But one of the other ways in which this can be done is by changing the way our political parties serve our communities, making them a force for social action.

Pretty soon after being elected, I found out that my constituents were much less interested in the minutiae of Westminster-focused constitutional change than I am.

They wanted to know what the Labour Party would do to change what going on outside their front door.

Make no mistake, traditional forms of political reform, such as a democratic House of Lords and votes at 16, both of which I support, will be important at the next election. But this is the hardware of political reform. Let's change the software, too.

That is why we built up a new network of community activists and social entrepreneurs -- two of whom are now standing in council seats for Labour in Hodge Hill in May.

That's why we should all want to transform the mission and purpose of the Labour Party, from being a force that mobilises communities for political ends, to mobilising politics for community ends. You might call it a return to our oldest traditions.

So, in this next election, Labour not only has to show it has a plan for global growth, we have to prove we're the party that will bring home the bacon for ordinary working families. Giving them control over their public services; building stronger communities; and reforming politics on every street, not just at Westminster. It's an ambitious agenda for the next five years -- and one that is Labour to its core.

Liam Byrne is Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

***

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser