Glasman said what many in Labour are thinking about Ed Miliband

Anxiety in the party about the leader's strategy of creeping up quietly on the coalition is building

"The quiet crisis" was at one point going to be a theme for Ed Miliband's campaign to highlight the consequences of coalition economic policy. The crisis in question was the discreet torment of families that gather around their kitchen table every night wondering how to make ends meet; what expense to spare next. It is a nice phrase, but it now better describes the state of the Labour party under Miliband's leadership.

It isn't a full-blown, noisy crisis with public rows and resignations, doors slamming, crockery breaking. It is a case of MPs, shadow ministers, party members, fellow-travellers in the media all holding their heads in their hands (metaphorically; sometimes literally) and wondering whether the Labour leader can mount a serious challenge to the coalition, let alone win an election at some point.

The collective despond explains, in part, why Lord Glasman's article in this week's New Statesman has received so much attention. It is an interesting critique of Ed Miliband's project, accusing the leader of excessive caution, suggesting he is being held back by deference to figures from the last government (i.e. Ed Balls) and urging some bolder more imaginative action to have an impact in 2012.

But it is the author as much as the analysis that makes it a significant intervention. Glasman was ennobled by Miliband and has been, over the past year, a close advisor. (He is not, nor has ever been, in any meaningful sense of the word, a "guru".) If this is what Ed's friends are saying, just imagine the view among his enemies and rivals. Some of the harsh language in the NS column no doubt expresses the frustration of someone who was once closer to the leader than he is now - a case of political love unrequited. And yet you hear variations on Glasman's theme from many quarters of the party. The prescriptions are always different but the underlying accusation is the same: caution, indecision and a failure to capture the public imagination. The passages of Glasman's column that have been most quoted elsewhere are the ones that express in a public forum what plenty of people in the party are saying in private - including people who think Ed Miliband can't run away from Glasman's "Blue Labour" ideas fast enough. In other words, even people who disagree with the prescription recognise the diagnosis.

The defence from Miliband's team amounts to an elaborate call for patience: the party has bounced back remarkably well from crushing defeat; it is more united than ever before; people are still giving the coalition the benefit of the doubt; the full scale of Tory economic failure hasn't set in yet; the media are hostile. This was all neatly expressed in a New Year strategy memo leaked to the Times, including the memorable lines that Labour has made "the best recovery of any opposition party in the history of opposition parties" and that comparisons between Ed Miliband and William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard are "wide of the mark".The party would rather such comparisons were donwright impossible.

There is much truth in the analysis underpinning the patience strategy. The party is indeed united and has bounced back from an election drubbing. Labour mostly leads in opinion polls. But the context is peculiar - Labour lost the last election, but the Tories didn't win it. No-one knows how well the party should be doing at this point in the electoral cycle because the coalition (which contains a kind of in-built opposition mechanism in the form of the Lib Dems) is such a political novelty. Unity, meanwhile, has been bought by avoiding difficult choices, especially in the discussion of public spending and how Labour would reform public services.

As for the poll advantage, it melted away when David Cameron grabbed a few populist headlines with his European veto manoeuvre. That confirms to many opposition MPs that what modest lead they have is soft - an expression of distaste for the generally glum state of the nation and not a serious endorsement of Labour as a potential party of government. They'll give Miliband more chances, though. He hasn't yet proved beyond doubt that his strategy of creeping up on the government will fail. The problem is, of course, that the only way you know when a creeping up strategy has failed is when you get right up close and find the enemy saw you coming a mile off. And by then it's too late.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

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