Miliband needs to change the subject

To be heard on the economy again, the Labour leader should talk more about public services.

So Ed Miliband has made another speech on the economy. This time the focus was an attack on the government's fiscal strategy. (My colleague George Eaton looks at the arguments in more detail here) This time there was a bit less of the broader, moralising language about the need for more responsible, non-predatory capitalism that has been the main feature of the Labour leader's rhetoric recently. The idea, it seems, was to set up next week's autumn statement as a test for the Chancellor. Can he show that his deficit reduction and debt containment plan is working? (Ed wouldn't be asking unless he was fairly sure the answer is "no".)

As I wrote in my column this week, Labour is still struggling to win the big macroeconomic argument about how best to balance the need to stimulate growth and show responsibility with public money. Ed Balls feels vindicated in his judgement that cutting hard and fast would choke off the recovery, making it harder to generate the revenue needed to shrink the deficit. But voters were persuaded by George Osborne's simpler analogies of household finance - we are in debt, so we must not spend. (No-one has found a way to turn Keynes's paradox of thrift into a nifty slogan, although Miliband's line about not being able to pay off the credit card without a job is a decent attempt.)

My suspicion is that people are simply not yet ready to listen to Labour at all on the economy. One shadow cabinet minister described the problem to me recently in psychological terms. The electorate's view of who is to blame for the mess we are in is affected by "cognitive dissonance" - the phenomenon that leads people to ignore evidence and arguments that challenge a position in which a prior emotional investment has been made. In other words, having been persuaded that Labour should not be trusted to run the economy and accepted that someone else should have a go, voters do not want to feel rebuked for choosing poorly.

That will change over time, since people will also always end up blaming the current administration for their pain. But no-one can say how quickly that will happen. Whatever the two Eds say about what should have happened, austerity is now the fixed backdrop to the economic debate. They need to find a way to move the conversation forwards to a discussion about who has the better ideas for treating people fairly and looking after them when there is no money to spend. That means no longer postponing difficult choices around public sector reform. The party needs an account of how it would get the right outcomes when simply spending more isn't on the agenda, thereby tackling also the tricky issue of how much money was "wasted" between 1997-2010 and how much "invested." In that respect, Labour has a certain advantage in that voters trust the party to care about services.

I am told that Miliband intends to tackle this question in the new year. That would probably coincide with a difficult period for the government as an inevitable winter crisis stirs up popular anger about bungled NHS reforms. If Miliband can come up with a compelling story about how it would get "more for less" in public services, the Tories would be vulnerable to the charge of being reckless and heartless cutters and Labour would be more credible on the deficit. It isn't yet remotely clear what that story might be though.

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

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.