PMQs sketch: Ed launches class war

Dave on the ropes after Miliband goes for Tory jugular.

After 18 months in the doldrums Ed Miliband at last came up with a successful strategy today for taking on the Government -- munching on millionaires.

It may seem odd that the leader of the Labour Party has taken so long to remember its history but that only goes to show how deep Lord Mandelson's "relaxation" with the filthy rich had sunk its roots.

But having successfully snacked on Stephen Hester over the weekend and gorged on Fred Goodwin yesterday, Ed clearly had the taste as he popped into the House of Commons for what turned out to be a lunchtime feast at Prime Ministers Questions.

Having stared at them across the Chamber since the General Election, Ed finally came up with the collective noun for the Coalition Cabinet that has been escaping him for months: millionaires.

Someone somewhere on the Labour team had remembered a fascinating fact which appeared and then disappeared after the election -- that almost everyone sitting around the Cabinet table has more than a Hester-sized slice in the bank.

Standing up to face the head millionaire, otherwise known as the Prime Minister, Ed, buoyed up by giving Dave a good kicking in the loose change over the banks and Europe, was cheered so loudly by his side that he looked around to see who else had come in.

But he was the hero as he demanded Dave follow up on his pre-election pledge to name all those in the banks who would be trousering at least a million despite collapsing share prices and the continuing crisis. As this could be a list that could take several hours to spell out, Dave could only adopt the historical precedent at PMQs and remember there is nothing in its title about answers.

Having failed to get millionaire Dave to answer, Ed then named his millionaire buddy Chancellor George as someone else who said names should be named.

Talking about money always makes the well off uncomfortable and the Tory side of the House seemed uncharacteristically quiet as Ed deployed both hands to make his point.

With Labour members now beside themselves with unexpected elation, Ed introduced a charge not heard since Tony and his pals seized the commanding heights of the Labour Party twenty years ago and delivered it directly to Dave.

"The class war," he said, "is being led by him and his Cabinet of millionaires." It was impossible to tell if all the Front Bench had heard what he said over the noise from Ed's new fan base, but Dave recoiled on their behalf from phraseology he and they must have thought would only ever be heard from Denis Skinner (who himself could be forgiven for thinking he'd woken up in the wrong place).

It remains to be seen if class war is taken out again from its glass case in the Museum of Labour History, and it is hard to avoid the glee with which it will be received at the Daily Mail, but it certainly did the business today.

The Prime Minister, now clearly unnerved by the drubbing he was getting, tried to bounce back with a charge of "hypocrisy" against Ed -- but when your luck is out, it really is out.

Quick as a flash, Speaker Bercow, whose own relationship with Dave is less than warm, was out of his seat to announce that the word was unparliamentary and must be withdrawn.

With their man floundering on the ropes the usual suspects on the Tory benches desperately tried to come to his aid with a series of fixed questions on the benefits cap due for debate later.

Labour is much less sure-footed in this area but Ed quite happily ignored the Prime Minister's increasingly frustrated attempts to draw him in. Chancellor George meanwhile sat silent as both counted down the minutes to the final bell setting them free from the nightmare.

But Ed was not finished and popped up again to list everyone in the NHS who had now come out against the Government's non-reorganisation plan to re-organise the health service.

If millionaires are Dave's latest nightmare, the cock-up over the NHS has been keeping him awake for months, and Ed's reminder only served to push his above-the-collar hue right off the colour charts. It was the Prime Minister who famously said: "We are all in this together." All of a sudden, we are not.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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