Miliband needs entrepreneur evangelists

The Labour leader's critique of "predatory" capitalism would be more effective delivered by experien

In a speech yesterday Ed Miliband set out in more detail the economic thesis he first outlined in his speech to the Labour party conference. It is, in essence, that there are deep structural flaws in the way British capitalism works. There has, the Labour leader believes, been too much emphasis on short-term profit-seeking and not enough consideration for long-term investment. The UK economy has become host to too much "predatory" behaviour and should foster more sustainable, responsible, "productive" business practices.

When Miliband first set out this predator/producer distinction he was quickly ridiculed by commentators and savagely attacked by the Conservatives. His critics presented the Labour position as wanting to install some moral arbiter in the Treasury passing judgement on good and bad businesses - rewarding the former with tax breaks and punishing the latter with, well, who knows?

That, Labour insists, is a crude caricature of Miliband's argument, but privately senior party figures accept that they left themselves open to such an attack by failing to flesh out the idea in more detail and, crucially, by failing to follow up the leader's conference speech with more concrete examples of what he had in mind. Many in the shadow cabinet also feel that the speech itself suffered from being re-written too many times with input from too many people, so the core argument was buried in caveats and digressions.

Yesterday's speech was certainly clearer and more focused - a virtue, perhaps, of being dedicated to one subject and so relieved of the pressures of a leader's speech at a party conference, which, convention dictates, has to cover absolutely everything from foreign policy to lame jokes and semi-fictional anecdotes that "personalise" the policy along the lines "I met a brave woman in Dudley ... her struggle demonstrates why ..."

Miliband is not a natural performer, so that idiom doesn't suit him. He is more effective when simply making a straight argument, as he did yesterday, although of course far fewer people are listening when it is just another speech on a Thursday lunchtime. Miliband is also helped by having Chuka Umunna installed as his shadow Business Secretary, making very much the same argument, as he did in a speech on Monday. Umunna is young, unfamiliar to the voters - so can plausibly represent a new chapter in the Labour story - and a fluent television performer. When he was elevated to the shadow cabinet last month there was a fair amount of whispering about over-promotion (he was elected to parliament in 2010). It is fair to say that Umunna's rapid rise and supreme confidence have ruffled a few feathers. Politics, like every other profession, is hardly free from envy. But many critics are already being swayed by what is generally felt to be an assured start by the shadow business secretary.

An essential part of Umunna's brief is to go around persuading businesses small and large - and the City - that Labour has a credible position not just an elaborate whinge. In that respect, his youth is a handicap. Business audiences are always deeply suspicious of politicians who have no experience of enterprise themselves ... which, these days, is most of them. George Osborne was routinely dismissed as a lightweight until the moment he became Chancellor.

For Labour this is a particular problem as the party is dominated by career politicians and people who have risen up through the trade union movement. It was a noticeable feature of the party's conference this year that hardly anyone spoke from the platform with long experience of the private sector. It is a gap that Ed Miliband urgently needs to fill, both in the way the party presents itself to the public and on his own staff. He is getting better at explaining his "predatory v productive capitalism" idea, but that will have limited effect unless it is bolstered by actual business people saying the same thing. Speeches will never be enough. He needs some heavyweight capitalists joining in to say, in effect, "yes, we are with Ed on this." And he needs someone in his immediate entourage, currently full of academics, think tankers and ex-journalists, who can bring the experience of running a business to the heart of the leader's operation. There are ethical, conscientious, socially responsible entrepreneurs out there. Ed Miliband needs to be recruiting them as evangelists for Labour's vision of a better capitalism. Otherwise his position on the economy will struggle to graduate from being an abstract critique to being a serious political proposition.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The English left must fall out of love with the SNP

There is a distinction between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism.

After a kerfuffle on Twitter the other night, I am all too aware that writing something even mildly questioning of the SNP government is the British equivalent of approaching a lion pride on a kill. Nevertheless, seeing the almost hero-levels of mental gymnastics tweeted by Mhairi Black, in the week of the Hillsborough inquiry whereupon Nicola Sturgeon posed with a copy of The Sun endorsing her re-election, prompted me once more to consider just how spectacular the distance has become between the SNP that stood against Ed Miliband versus the SNP today and in government.

Mhairi tweeted: “So Kezia wants to put up the taxes of Scottish people to subsidise Tory cuts that her party supported in Westminster?”. Confused? So am I.

This follows in a series of SNP revisionism on what austerity is and the excuses the SNP has hidden, not quite so conspicuously, up its sleeve to not act on its new tax powers, so as not to break its bond with Middle Scotland. They insist that Labour’s plans for a penny tax are not progressive, and have framed it in such a way that an anti-austerity plan has now become a subsidy for cuts Labour actually haven’t supported for more than a year now. Just like that, the SNP is a low-tax mimicry of Toryism.

But it isn’t ‘just like that’. The SNP have governed from an economically cautious stance for seven years. For a brief period, they borrowed Ed Miliband’s clothes. But once the Red Wedding had been completed, they returned back to where they started: as successors to New Labour, though that is hardly fair: they are far, far less redistributive.

So why is it, in the 2015 election, and even today, many of us on the left in England still entrust our faith in SNP rhetoric? Still beat the drum for an electoral ‘progressive’ coalition with a party that doesn’t seem very happy to embrace even the concept of higher taxes?

My theory is that the SNP have successfully, indeed more successfully than any party in Britain, adopted the prime hobby of much of the Left: ‘againstism’.

‘Againstism’, clumsy I admit, is to be against everything. This can include a negative framing of being anti-austerity but not pro-anything in its place. But in this instance, it means to be anti-establishment. The latter, the establishment, is what Labour as a party of government always has aspired to be in competing to be the national government in Westminster - which is why elements of the Left will always hate it and will always vote against it. In a way, some of the left is suspicious of governance. This is occasionally healthy, until it prevents real progressivism from ever being elected.

While in government, Labour could be seen as sell-outs, rightly or wrongly, because they became the establishment and had no one but themselves to blame. The SNP are the establishment, in Scotland, but can nevertheless exercise ‘againstism’, even with new tax powers. They always will so long as Westminster exists, and so long as their main motivation is independence. This is why the bogeymans that sustain nationalism are not natural allies of social democracy; to achieve social democracy would be to remove the bogeyman. This means that the Lesser New Labour tradition within which they govern will continue to go unnoticed, nor be doomed to eventual death as New Labour itself suffered, nor be looked back on as an era of neoliberalism. The SNP can just avert attentions back to the Westminster establishment. ‘Againstism’. Paradoxically, the way the SNP have managed to come to exploit this is because of New Labour's devolution. Devolution has created, for the first time, the perfect environment for an establishment in one part of the country to blame the establishment in another. It has allowed for the rise of an incumbent insurgent. The SNP can campaign as insurgents while still being incumbents. It is a spectacular contradiction that they alone can manage.

Insurgency and anti-establishment politics are not, of themselves, a bad thing. We on the Left all dip our toes in it. It is a joy. It is even more fun for us to be successful. Which is why the celebratory mood that surrounded the SNP gains in Scotland, a paradigm shift against one incumbent for another, is, objectively, understandable. But these insurgents are not actually insurgents; they are the illusion of one, and they have had the reigns of power, greater now for the Scotland Bill, for seven years. And they have done little radical with it. The aim of an anti-establishment politics is to replace an establishment with something better. All the SNP have done is inherit an establishment. They are simply in the fortunate position of managing to rhetorically distance itself from it due to the unique nature of devolution.

This is why some of the Left still loves them, despite everything. They can remain ‘againstists’ regardless of their incumbency. They do not have the stench of government as a national Labour government did and inevitable would have. So the English Left still dream.

But now, with this mounting evidence and the SNP’s clumsy revisionism, it is up to the English Left to distinguish between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism, and to see the establishment -via governance- as something to define for itself, to reshape as something better, rather than something to be continuously against. This is, after all, what Attlee's government did. The SNP have not defined the establishment, they have continued someone else's. It's up to us to recognise that and fall out of love with the SNP.