There is a new consensus about the economy and – believe it or not – Labour called it first

Buried in the coalition’s austerity programme is the kernel of acceptance that, ultimately, government is the solution to economic malaise.

The Conservative Party’s dedication to the memory of Baroness Thatcher is hardly in doubt. Grief at her death earlier this year brought more unity to the party than any of the policies David Cameron has devised for that purpose. In case the point was missed (it wasn’t), a group of Tory backbenchers propose renaming the August bank holiday in honour of the Iron Lady (it won’t be).

But when it comes to influencing government policy, Mrs T is rivalled by the man who brought her down. Michael Heseltine may not enjoy the veneration of his party but he has the ear of its leaders. Earlier this year, he published a plan for stimulating growth by giving regions more control over spending. Chunks of the report have been adopted as government policy. Ask Treasury ministers and advisers about their economic strategy and the chances are that Heseltinian intervention will get a reference before Thatcherism.

Westminster has been so busy noticing the victory of the right in an argument about cuts it has barely clocked the left’s victory in an argument about the duty of the state to foster growth. There is cross-party agreement on the need to spend scarce resources on infrastructure. There is near consensus that the state should be doing more to nurture promising, innovative sectors of the economy. The discredited 1970s practice of “picking winners” has been adjusted and rebranded. It is now a “modern industrial strategy”. Every party will have one in its 2015 manifesto.

Not everyone has received the new wisdom. There are Conservatives who despise all state meddling and think that the only good government intervention is lighting a bonfire of employment rights and workplace protection. Osborne recognises the need to keep that wing of his party fed with meaty policy chunks but his own views are more nuanced.

Cabinet colleagues say the Chancellor privately accepts that Britain already has a liberal labour market and a relatively low-regulation economy. Future growth, in other words, will be spurred by government getting stuck in, not getting out of the way.

Osborne took a gamble on hard and fast cuts in the hope of fighting an election with a tamed deficit and booming economy. That move failed. But cynical risk-taking is not the same as ideological rigidity. Osborne’s allies say his urge to win is greater than his eagerness to parrot Thatcherite shibboleths.

The really zealous expressions of Conservatism are elsewhere, in Michael Gove’s campaign to prise schools away from localauthority control, for example, or in a welfare policy that sees help from the state as a cause of poverty rather than its alleviation. In a fiercely ideological field, economic management is one of the more pragmatic bits of the coalition agenda.

Labour detests the idea that Osborne is flexible. The Chancellor’s refusal to change course has been an opposition mantra. Any dabbling in pro-growth intervention is dismissed with scorn. Money for infrastructure, say shadow ministers, is dwarfed by earlier cuts to capital spending budgets. Funds aimed at supporting new businesses sit idle. If the coalition wanted local growth plans, why scrap regional development agencies? Vince Cable might fancy a new industrial policy but, says Labour, the real agenda is set by old Tory reflexes: tax cuts for the rich; devil take the hindmost.

There are obvious reasons for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to depict Cameron and Osborne as captives of an outmoded and callous creed. At a glance, the cap fits. But by belittling the Tory conversion to active government, Labour misses the opportunity to claim a moral victory. Under the last government, Peter Mandelson led the interventionist revival with his call for a more “strategic state” to navigate chaotic forces of globalisation. In candid moments, Heseltinian Tories concede that Mandelson was right.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives dare admit that their economic views are converging. The fortification of opposing trenches, separated by boggy no-man’s-land (aka the Lib Dems), has become a strategic necessity and a source of intellectual comfort. Yet the proximity is clear to anyone outside the two tribes. Labour has accepted that budgets must be cut, as the Tories said all along. The Tories are borrowing to keep the economy afloat, as Labour predicted they would.

Both want to spend on infrastructure and skills. Both are working their way towards a more vigorous industrial policy. Both are planning manifesto chapters on beefing-up consumer regulation to address the rage of people who feel permanently ripped off by banks, utilities, rail companies and pretty much every other essential service, many of which are in the private sector. The political pendulum is swinging towards more, not less, intervention in the economy. That should favour Labour – but before the opposition can take any credit for the new consensus, it has to prove that the consensus is there. That means recognising there is more to Tory economic policy than cuts.

Buried in the coalition’s austerity programme is the kernel of acceptance that, ultimately, government is the solution to economic malaise, not the cause. Miliband and Balls may not want to give the Chancellor credit for getting anything right but they also need to look as if they are winning some big arguments. Full-frontal attack is Labour’s default stance towards Osborne. Sometimes faint praise can be more damning.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband look on during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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