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

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle