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

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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