Leader: The new realism

The challenge is to build, within those constraints, a project that is distinct from the coalition’s offer of slow immiseration for the many and impunity for the few.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have been forced to acknowledge their tricky position on the wrong side of public opinion on two vital questions. On the economy, there is suspicion that excessive spending by the last government is the cause of current misery. On welfare, many voters think that Labour presided over a system that rewarded idleness.

The challenge for the party leadership is to recognise the public mood without accepting so much blame as to do the Tories’ work for them. In co-ordinated speeches, the two Eds have set about that task. Mr Balls has clarified his approach to the public finances in the light of bleak forecasts. He does not envisage a future Labour government spending more in its early years than the coalition plans to do. Meanwhile, Mr Miliband has set out new ideas about social security that emphasise the link between contributions paid in and benefits paid out. This is to address the charge that the system doles out “something for nothing”. Labour has also accepted that the total welfare spend will have to be capped and that certain coalition cuts – say, to child benefit – would not be reversed.

One concern is that making benefits more conditional than universal is an intellectual surrender to enemies of the welfare state. There is also anxiety that oaths of fiscal discipline are a conversion to Conservative economics.

Those concerns can be assuaged. The principle of universal welfare does not dissolve in targeted cuts. The greater threat is a decline in the perceived legitimacy of taxpayer-funded benefits, a process that is accelerated if Labour cannot articulate voters’ concerns. Likewise, Labour cannot credibly offer an alternative to the coalition without acknowledging fiscal constraints.

The challenge is to build, within those constraints, a project that is distinct from the coalition’s offer of slow immiseration for the many and impunity for the few.

Labour’s new realism about spending limits is a necessary step towards winning over sceptical voters – but if it represents the limits of its imagination as it attempts to create a new political consensus, then the party is in trouble.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.