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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.