Labour must recognise the need for ruthless prioritisation

The party must seize control of the debate and show a bit of leg when it comes to economic policy.

 

There are three central arguments that will determine the outcome of the next election. One is over fairness, a second is over economic management, and a third over cultural affinity with the British – or more accurately the English – people.

Labour is winning the first of these hands down, but on the other two there is still a lot of spade work to do. Winning the cultural argument is perhaps the hardest. But it is on the economy that more progress must be made now if Labour is to make a genuine breakthrough.

Many observers wrongly believe that a weak economy and depressed living standards will hand Labour victory. There is nothing axiomatic about this. In fact, even if there is no economic recovery – and there may well be – this assumption is intoxicatingly complacent. No one should confuse the vicissitudes of government with the big questions that determine election outcomes.

If economic malaise continues, it is likely that in the general election campaign more questions will be asked of Labour than of the Conservatives because fear of change will dominate the psychology of the electorate. Credit downgrade, double, triple or even quadruple dip, it will not matter much. Elections are about choice.

And on the economy one question above all will define the debates – where is the money coming from? There is nothing new in this. It is an age old question, which has defined many elections. But this time, without better economic news, anxiety about debt – national and personal - will make it more potent.

To borrow from George Bernard Shaw, if Labour is unable to answer this question - we will neither find it easy to look at things as they are and ask why nor dream of things that never were and ask why not?

Ed Miliband knows this. Hence, his use of the phrase “ruthless prioritisation” in his Fabian lecture in January. It is time his party knew it.

There is a perfectly credible economic argument that the pace of cuts should be slower but whether you are a Keynesian, a Monetarist or just care about the price of a loaf of bread, it cannot be denied that there is now a need for some ruthless prioritisation.

Economics and politics sometimes pass in the night, but they rarely face in the same direction. The paradox is that the more you side with the view that cuts should be slower, the more you must reassure the electorate by demonstrating your determination to prioritise ruthlessly.

Taxing the rich more is not ruthless prioritisation, but the easy option; a habit that progressive parties should indulge in judiciously. Tax avoidance has to be tackled, but it is fiendishly difficult to raise more revenue consistently by doing so, particularly from global corporations. To deal with it effectively often requires international agreement.

Before Labour comes to a judgement on the spending envelope it needs to set out a coherent case to begin to answer the question that looms large on the horizon.

First, it must define, or rather redefine, the role of the state, and from this demonstrate how it will deliver value for money.

Old Labour believed that central government’s job was to deliver. New Labour wanted to steer not row the boat, but this too often became micro management from the centre, which stifled local initiative. One Nation Labour must let go. On housing benefit, employment programmes, and support for business, there are strong arguments for devolving certain powers to local government.

The IPPR has already made the case for some devolution of powers, but it has also articulated an excellent case for what it terms the ‘relational state.’ Fundamentally, opportunity derives from connections: who you know, not just what you know. By beginning to think about the problem in this way One Nation Labour can radically redefine the role of the state.

Here there are encouraging signs. In his recent contribution to the debate, Jon Cruddas, set out the case for both these changes in thinking.  But to make it fly Labour’s Treasury team must also sign up to this agenda.

One of Ed Miliband’s most effective themes is responsibility, from top to bottom. He should tie government into this theme, based on the responsibility of government to deliver good value for taxpayers. To make the case for this there are many reforms that should be advocated. Most of which don’t normally grab headlines, but demonstrate a real desire to be responsible with taxpayer’s money. An obvious example is the amalgamation of local government pensions, which has the potential to save billions.

Labour is beginning to think about ways to raise revenue which do not entail plucking the goose. It has to be careful not to show too much leg too soon but one idea that has far more mileage is social impact bonds, which reward investors only if certain agreed social outcomes are attained.

But even if Labour articulates these arguments well it cannot duck the need for ruthless prioritisation.  Universal provision of certain services and core universal benefits are vital to binding the nation together, but the boundaries of state provision have always fluctuated, and a debate about those boundaries, based on clear principles, should hold no fear. Certainly not for a mature party that is hungry for government.

For those who would protect everything and change nothing ask yourself how you would react if the Tories were to declare - as they are likely to do - that in the next parliament they would scrap certain pensioner benefits, such as free bus passes and the winter fuel allowance, and put the money instead into a better minimum pension, to protect the poorest?

It is far better for Labour to demonstrate strength and open up this debate now than to respond meekly when the question is put. Oppositions oppose, governments in waiting confront the challenges the nation faces.

Nick Pecorelli is associate director of The Campaign Company

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Nick Pecorelli is Associate Director of The Campaign Company

Show Hide image

Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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