It’s the 1970s, stupid

For Labour the 1970s, not the 1990s, is the decade to search for comparisons.

Has the political class lost all memory? The comparisons between Ed Miliband and his two immediate predecessors as Labour leader are fatuous. The more exact comparison is Labour in its first 18 months after a heavy defeat. In 1952, 1971 or 1980 Labour was divided, depressed, demoralised, down and out. In 2011, Labour has none of the left-right, Bevan-Gaitskell, Benn-Healey, pro or anti Europe/CND divisions that ripped the guts out of the party in previous periods of opposition. Labour frontbenchers with greater or lesser degrees of effectiveness are focusing on the Government not on each other. Compared to Clement Attlee or Michael Foot, Ed Miliband seems young, fresh, open to ideas, and, as we saw in Monday's speech willing to tell hard truths to his party.

This is extremely frustrating for the commentariat, all of whom have been in the same job, writing the same columns for twenty years of more. They don't get Ed and Labour is not behaving according to tradition by refusing to become centrifugal, fissiparous and quarrelsome in opposition. Progress, the Fabians, Compass, and other think tanks and websites are post-factionalist. They plough their furrows and are not seeking to be organising centres for alternative leaders in the way that Bennite or Gaitskellite factionalism damaged Labour after 1979 or 1951.

Forget TB/GB. They are yesterday. More important, their rise to power came after fifteen years in opposition. When both took over in 1994, the Conservatives were unelectable. For Labour the 1970s are much more a decade to examine to search for comparisons. There were four governments in less than a decade. The Heath government arrived in power in 1970 with a sense of ideological purpose and a desire to shake up government. But events - domestic and international - forced change after change, U-turn after U-turn as the Heath government lost its bearings and momentum.

Heath's reforms, similar to Cameron's NHS policy, came to naught when tested against reality and widespread social opposition. What arrived as a confident, cocky Conservative government in June 1970 had become by late 1972 a confused cacophony of unhappy Tory MPs. Labour simply picked up the pieces in 1974. Then Margaret Thatcher arrived. Like Ed Miliband, she was widely derided for her voice, her cautious style at the Despatch Box, her lack of ideological certainty and her refusal to dump on the 70-74 Tory government. The Iron Lady and ideological Maggie we all remember is a product of power and was not evident in opposition. All she had to do was hold her party together and wait for Labour to collapse.

The 1970s like the second decade of the 21st century were a transition era between the welfare state mixed economy era that began in 1945 and run out of steam after the first oil shock of 1973. The United States had to withdraw from Vietnam just as America will withdraw from Afghanistan. By 1980, the world was ready to move into the long globalisation era defined by Reagan and Thatcher based on reducing by 10 per cent the share of national income going into wages and reinforcing rentier capitalism. This era came to an abrupt end in 2008. As in the 1970s we are in a transition period. Cameron and Osborne are still applying the recipes of the Thatcher-Reagan era and have not analysed the time-shift to a new economic model and the space-shift to a new geo-politics based on the rise of authoritarian nationalist expansionist powers like China, Russia, and India. President Obama in Westminster hall invited the EuroAtlantic community to reassert its values and confidence. But the petty Europhobic nationalism of today's Conservatives does not allow Cameron to see a bigger picture.

Labour and Ed Miliband thus find themselves with a trilemma. All Blair had to do was adapt Labour to the era of globalisation. In a transition era there is no such obvious road map to follow though Miliband's thoughtful speech gave some pointers. Second, there is a systemic failure of European social democracy to find solutions to current economic and social transitions. Thirdly, Labour is trapped in a fatuous row over its immediate past as the putschists of 2006 refuse to admit they made a tragic mistake by elevating normal personal rivalries into an assault on the most successful Labour prime minister(together with his Chancellor) in political history.

That said, Labour and Ed are in a much stronger position than any previous period when Labour went into opposition. The NHS fiasco, brilliantly handled by John Healey, is showing up the Heathite nature of a government that is led by a Duke of York Cameron marching his troops into the lobbies and then saying their votes were wasted and they have to come marching down again. There is even a U-turn on bin collections a reductio ad absurdum that not even Heath achieved. The next generation of political problems will focus on issues like Scottish separatism, Middle East turmoil, reducing the number of MPs and reforming the Lords, and Britain's role internationally and in Europe. A policy for Europe and a theory of low-tax co-responsibility, co-funding socialism is overdue. As in the 1970s expect febrile, changing politics. If Labour can understand and exploit this transition era there is no reason to be pessimistic.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former minister for Europe

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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