Ed Miliband cannot be radical and cautious at the same time

The Labour leader indulges contradictory positions in his entourage. He needs to choose a course and

The Labour leader indulges contradictory positions in his entourage. He needs to choose a course and stick with it.

A new year has deepened old splits. This week Ed Miliband's guru Lord Glasman politely excoriated the party for seemingly having "no strategy". If anyone thought it was a direct attack on Ed Miliband, they missed the point. It was a thinly veiled assault on Ed Balls and the shadow chancellor's associated vision for the state.

Glasman is not alone. Labour MP Jim Murphy reached out to join him and In the Black Labour argued that the lack of coherence on the deficit was undermining the party's credibility. Liam Byrne MP called for benefits to be overhauled. Although Ed Miliband has agreed to all these positions in theory, he has not led them in practice.

Whilst the parliamentary party is closer to Ed Balls, the country is closer to Maurice Glasman, at least in terms of spending. Ed Miliband is somewhere in the middle, and the result is an awkward triangulation that doesn't get through to the public.

In his latest interview for the Guardian, the Labour leader papered over the split. He came out relatively strongly in favour of fiscal conservatism, saying that finding a way to improve the country with less money was "the challenge" facing Labour. But he also defended Ed Balls, saying that he was the man who led spending cuts in 1997.

This feels disingenuous. Ed Balls clearly believes a form of Keynesian economics is a credible way to get us out of the red, and if he does have plans to improve the country beyond a traditional tax and spend model, I haven't heard them. I am still not clear what his plans are to boost the private sector or how to rebalance growth out of the South East and financial services, although this may be because Balls believes it would take even more investment in enterprise zones or tax breaks, meaning even great cuts elsewhere.

Blue Labour is calling for a radically different programme. Glasman has repeatedly urged us to learn the lessons of Germany, increasing vocational education, regional banks and workers' representation. He wants a more reciprocal model of the state with a heavier emphasis on contribution, giving people control over assets rather than material flows. He wants a deep cultural change that allows the party to speak about small 'c' conservative values that deal with family, neighbourliness and place.

Glasman also clashes with Balls on the market. He wants to place limits on the flexibility of capital and labour and have a dialogue about responsible capitalism. Ed Balls seems at best uninterested with this approach. When the opposition asked Balls to define "predatory behaviour" heralded by his leader under the inspiration of Glasman, he had nothing to say, and as left blogger Sunny Hundal points out, Balls' recent position on bankers was essentially the same as the Conservatives.

Both sides have their challenges. The problem for Ed Balls is that his strategy seems bankrupt. We don't know where the money for tax and spend is going to come from. Even if we did, it doesn't answer the fact that Labour's huge welfare bill failed to empower many vulnerable people. And it's not where the public are at. They hate waste and want fiscal discipline.

The problem for Glasman is that he lacks a strategy for power. Ed Miliband is - or was - his key relationship with power. He took a risk by speaking out, and the leader's office is now irritated with him, and the parliamentary party is unlikely to be sympathetic. There are only so many times you can set fire to a bridge before it burns down completely.

So now Ed Miliband has to make a choice. I want him to succeed, but too often his interviews appear to be carving out a difficult intellectual position for journalists and politicians to accept as consistent. He needs to speak over the heads of Westminster elites and talk to the country about exactly what a Labour government would look like. His messages on the squeezed middle, responsibility and the promise of Britain are right on. He just needs the strength to follow through what these radical changes mean in practice. We need to see how Labour will turn a sense of national decline into something great.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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