Miliband to make major speech on the economy this week

Labour leader will deliver speech on the economy on Thursday as new ICM poll shows his party continues to trail the Tories in this area.

One of the reasons why many Labour MPs remain pessimistic about their party's chances of winning of a majority in 2015 is that, even after a double-dip recession, Labour continues to trail the Conservatives on the economy. While the latest Guardian/ICM poll gives Labour a 12-point lead (its highest since May 2003), it also shows that more voters (29 per cent) blame the "unsustainable spending" of the last government for the slowdown than the Tories' cuts (23 per cent).

For Labour, the concern is that such ratings are often a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. History shows that at general election time, when the opposition comes under greater scrutiny, voters usually side with the party that they view as the most economically competent. With the economy likely to return to sustained growth in 2014, the danger is that the coalition will increase its advantage in advance of 2015. 

If Ed Miliband is to firmly establish himself as a prime-minister-in-waiting, he will need to improve his party's standing in this area. I'm told that the Labour leader will make a major speech on the economy this Thursday, outlining his party's priorities ahead of the Budget on 20 March. On the same day, Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour's policy review, will deliver a speech on "the condition of Britain" (an echo of the book of the same name by G.D.H. Coleto coincide with the launch of a major new IPPR project on living standards, described to me as the think-tank's most ambitious programme since its famous Commission on Social Justice, which helped shape Labour's 1997 manifesto. 

After Cruddas warned in his Resolution Foundation speech last week that "simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good" (interpreted by some as a coded critique of Ed Balls), expect Miliband to say more about his vision of a remade capitalism. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories