How Blue Labour can outflank the coalition

There is a huge opportunity for Ed Miliband to borrow and adapt thinking from the centre right.

When political parties have been in government for a long time, they run out of new ideas. After their crushing defeat in 1997, it took an awfully long time for the Conservatives to even refresh their thinking. The process of intellectual renewal didn't begin in earnest until after 2001, when a new generation of think tanks were created to modernise the centre right.

Something similar is needed now on the centre left. A process of renewal is slowly starting. New groups like the Resolution Foundation are doing interesting work on stagnating wages. The Blue Labour project is interesting, as any group involving both James Purnell and Jon Cruddas is likely to be.

The problem is that this new thinking won't come to fruition for years yet. And that leaves Ed Miliband awfully exposed. Why not borrow and adapt some thinking from the centre right? There are plenty of opportunities to outflank the coalition.

I hear you groan. Of course, these days people are naturally suspicious of anything that smacks of "triangulation" or "outflanking". I understand why. Crass attempts to defeat your ideological opponents by turning yourself into them don't work in the long term. There is no point trying to out-racist the BNP. But there are a whole set of new ideas floating about on the centre right that can fit in with Labour voters' values.

Take the environment. Over the course of recent years, politicians have scrambled to catch up with the public, and have quickly cobbled together a framework of policies to be seen to be "doing something". Partly because of this scramble for headlines, our current set of policies are not particularly effective. We have some, like the climate change levy, which reduce carbon emissions at a cost of less than £4 a tonne. We have others, like feed-in tariffs and the renewable heat incentive, which do the same job, but at a cost which is orders of magnitude higher. (The feed in tariff is about £440 for the same tonne). Rationalising the higgledy-piggledy mix of overlapping instruments we now have would allow us to decarbonise more, at a lower cost. With energy bills now a front page issue again, and Labour voters most likely to feel the pinch, there is a huge political opportunity here: making things "greener and cheaper" is the winning position in the green debate. You could spend the savings on reducing fuel poverty.

Or think about welfare. Here, things are tricky. Public attitudes are often described by commentators as "tough". That's partially true, but is a rather superficial reading. It is true that there is a big political danger for Labour in being too associated with an uncritical defence of the welfare status quo. Voters quite rightly want to change a system that left 5-6 million working age adults on out-of-work benefits all the way through the long boom.

But there are public attitudes and policy opportunities that Labour can work with. The first is strong public support for the contributory principle -- the idea that those who make greater contributions will get more out of the welfare system. This was a core principle of the welfare state as designed by William Beveridge and Lloyd George, who regarded it as essential for both reasons of fairness and public support for the welfare state, and also to underpin incentives to work. But every time the UK has experienced fiscal problems, we have rinsed the contributory principle out of the system a little further, because it is politically tempting to hit those whose immediate needs are less severe. This process is still going on, and few people realise that the UK is an extreme outlier among developed countries in having moved so far away from this principle. Most other countries, from the US to Germany have contributory unemployment insurance at a higher rate than basic welfare payments.

Perhaps the most interesting concrete proposal to emerge from the "Blue Labour" discussions so far is a renewed interest in the contributory principle. But how to get from here to there? At Policy Exchange, we recently suggested allowing the creation of a personal welfare account that would sit above the new Universal Credit. However, that would take time and money to run up. As a first step, we could change things so that the conditions on receipt of welfare benefits (like the period in which you can turn down non-preferred jobs) were relatively more generous than for those with a record of national insurance contributions, compared to those without.

On crime too, there are relatively technocratic ideas floating around on the centre-right which Labour should be seizing on. Poor people are disproportionately likely to be the victims of crime. And polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests that crime has become the government's main vulnerability. The polls also show that the public are far "tougher" on crime than any of the main political parties are. But voters aren't thick either: given that money is tight, we need to be smart on crime, and use resources in the most effective way.

There are masses of things that could be done to improve the criminal justice system, which don't involve spending more money. Our prisons are awash with drugs, and the Metropolitan Police estimates that there are a thousand corrupt officers bringing them in. We will never make progress on rehabilitation until we sort this out. Prison work has been neglected and too few prisoners work. Meaningful work helps rehabilitation, and the money it would generate could be used to help victims and also to get prisoners to partially "pay for their stay." Community sentences are rightly regarded as a joke by the voters, because they fail to stop reoffending. We have proposed thaty they be replaced them with meaningful "work orders".

Despite Tony Blair's promise to be tough on the causes of crime, crime prevention efforts are still peripheral. And of course, there is much more that can be done to enable the police to do more with less: from the shift to individual patrolling (twice as many patrols for the same money) to the more targeted use of expensive warranted officers (they shouldn't be cleaning cars).

On schools, Labour needs a much clearer response to the coalition's expansion of the academies programme. Given that it was originally a Labour initiative, perhaps it is time to try and snatch the policy back. The new government has radically increased the number of academies by allowing existing schools to convert to academy status. And it has introduced new parent-driven free schools. But Andrew Adonis' original academies programme -- in which consistently failing schools are replaced by new schools -- is still up and running. Seven schools of this type, sponsored by individuals and institutions, opened in the first couple of months of this year. Unfortunately for Labour, the government are already moving to rebalance their agenda back towards the Adonis vision. Andy Burnham needs to move much quicker if he is going to grasp this opportunity.
Why not take Adonis' original concept and turbocharge it? Set the bar for failure far higher and aim to replace not tens but hundreds of schools that are failing less privileged children. You could push lots of public institutions to act as sponsors: every university in the country, for instance. If you wanted to make a political point and needle the Tories, you could push independent schools to act as sponsors too.

Trying to turn around a party after a long period in government is a tough gig, as William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith discovered. But there are all kinds of policy opportunities out there for Ed Miliband, if he chooses to take them.

Neil O'Brien is Director of Policy Exchange

Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”