The Conservatives want to keep Labour hemmed into its past – and so do the unions

While the Labour leader takes time to ponder the future, his party is drifting into a style of politics that looks in urgent need of consignment to the past.

New Labour’s triumph over the Conservatives at the end of the 20th century was mostly cultural. That isn’t a belittlement. Culture trumps politics when it comes to social change. Politics intervenes; culture pervades.

During the long economic boom, Conservatives were culturally marginalised. To be a Tory was to be a curmudgeon at the carnival, fingers in ears, moaning about the racket. Since 2010, the Tories have turned that around, depicting Labour as revellers who didn’t notice when the music stopped. This is usually presented as an economic argument but that understates its potency. The need for austerity – harking back to postwar privations – is a cultural assertion.

The Tories never threw off their “nasty party” image but they have made a virtue of meanness. Having the will to inflict pain is now accepted as a test of readiness to govern. New Labour’s age of ebullience has been rewritten as a dark time of uncontrolled debt, immigration and welfare.

Yet Tory and Lib Dem strategists report that Labour’s brand is oddly resilient. Ed Miliband’s personal image is weak and much of the blame for economic misery clings to his party but enough voters retain a sense that the left’s heart is in the right place. George Osborne is encouraged by the public’s surrender to austerity but that isn’t a reliable advantage for the Tories if their motives are suspect. In an election defined by the need to ration public money, one question asked of each party will be: “Whose side are you on?” Many people will look at David Cameron and supply the answer: “His rich chums.”

The equivalent label that Cameron wants to pin on Miliband is “militant trade unions”. The Prime Minister overestimates public fear of organised labour. Strikes aren’t always popular but it takes some immersion in Conservative demonology from the 1970s to see the unions as enemies of society.

Still, senior Labour figures are less relaxed about the union connection than they were even a year ago. Cameron’s attacks on that front used to be dismissed as wild misfiring, a red-faced toff hectoring nurses, teachers and dinner ladies. That certainty has dissolved in anxiety about Unite, the largest union formally affiliated to Labour and the source of roughly a quarter of the party’s funding. Under the guidance of its general secretary, Len McCluskey, Unite is accused of requisitioning chunks of the party machine and inserting anointed candidates in line for winnable parliamentary seats.

This has been blown into the open by the bodged attempt to select a replacement for Eric Joyce, the Falkirk MP whose parliamentary career was derailed by a brawl in a House of Commons bar. Among other things, Unite is accused of buying up bogus Labour membership by the bucketful to swing the ballot. The selection process has been halted and the local party placed under “special measures”. The episode is now tangled in arcane disputes about party rules and salacious rumour.

There is nothing new about dodgy candidate selections, although historically at least some of the stitching up was done to suit the interests of the leader. These days, the machine is seen as an autonomous operation under the control of Tom Watson, the deputy chair of the Labour Party, its “campaign coordinator” and a friend of McCluskey.

Miliband’s allies accept that the Falkirk episode is, as one aide tells me, “obviously a car crash” but they also point out that the party has acted decisively to get a grip on the situation.

MPs are just as worried about the wider culture of hostile briefing and intimidation that is associated with the Watson operation, which is much the same apparatus that sustained Gordon Brown in his bunker. “It’s a way of doing politics that could end up profoundly damaging the Labour Party,” says one frontbencher.

Much of this goes unnoticed by voters but the Tories feast on it. They hope a message will get out that the Labour Party has its own nasty streak; that Miliband’s gentle, pious manner is a velvet glove on the old, clunking fist. The Conservatives need to keep Labour hemmed into its past. That task is easier if the leader looks subservient to union bosses who hate his recent conversion to spending restraint.

It was impatience to talk about the future, instead of rehearsing anti-austerity arguments devised for the economy as it was in 2010, that provoked Miliband into public acceptance last month that a government he led would be bound by much the same spending limits as those proposed by the coalition. The left has been disorientated by the move, but friends of the Labour leader say he is more confident of his position now than before the leap. While the Tories are having fun knocking the opposition for disarray and lack of commitment to the new line, Miliband is calm in the knowledge that his resolve is, as usual, underestimated.

His plan supposes the gradual unfurling of a banner on which will be inscribed an election-winning message of social and economic renaissance, delivered on a tight budget. Frugal idealism. On paper, that is the right strategic place for Miliband but his problems aren’t on paper and they aren’t all strategic. They are cultural. And culture, as the writer Peter Drucker once said, eats strategy for breakfast. While the Labour leader takes time to ponder the future, his party is drifting into a style of politics that looks in urgent need of consignment to the past.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. 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 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Today's immigration figures show why the net migration target should be scrapped

We should measure different types of migration separately and set targets that reflect their true impact.

Today’s net migration figures show, once again, that the government has raised expectations of tackling migration and failed to deliver. This is a recipe for disaster. Today’s numbers run far in excess of 300,000 – three times over what was pledged. These figures don’t yet reflect the fallout from Brexit. But they do show the government needs to change from business as usual.

It has been the current strategy, after all, that led the British public to reject the European Union regardless of the economic risks. And in the process, it is leading the government to do things which err on the side of madness. Like kicking out international students with degrees in IT, engineering or as soon as they finish their degrees. Or doubling the threshold for investor visas, and in the process bringing down the number of people willing to come to Britain to set up business and create jobs by 82 per cent. Moreover, it has hampered the UK’s ability to step up during last year’s refugee crisis - last year Britain received 60 asylum applications per 1,000 people in contrast to Sweden’s 1,667, Germany’s 587 and an EU average of 260.

The EU referendum should mark the end for business as usual. The aim should be to transition to a system whose success is gauged not on the crude basis of whether overall migration comes down, irrespective of the repercussions, but on the basis of whether those who are coming are helping Britain achieve its strategic objectives. So if there is evidence that certain forms of migration are impacting on the wages of the low paid then it is perfectly legitimate for government to put in place controls. Conversely, where flows help build prosperity, then seeing greater numbers should surely be an option.

Approaching immigration policy in this way would go with the grain of public opinion. The evidence clearly tells us that the public holds diverse views on different types of migration. Very few people are concerned about investors coming from abroad to set up companies, create jobs and growth. Few are worried about students paying to study at British universities. On the other hand, low-skilled migration causes concerns of under-cutting among the low paid and pressure on public services in parts of the country that are already struggling.

The first step in a new approach to managing migration has to be to abolish the net migration target. Rather than looking at migration in the aggregate, the aim should be to measure different types of migration separately and set targets that reflect their true impact. In the first instance, this could be as simple as separating low and high skilled migration but in the long term it could involve looking at all different forms of migration. A more ambitious strategy would be to separate the different types of migration - not just those coming to work but also those arriving as refugees, to study or be reunited with their families.

Dividing different flows would not only create space for an immigration policy which was strategic. It would also enable a better national conversation, one which could take full account of the complex trade-offs involved in immigration policy: How do we attract talent to the UK without also letting conditions for British workers suffer? Should the right to a family life override concerns about poor integration? How do we avoiding choking off employers who struggle to recruit nationally? Ultimately, are we prepared to pay those costs?

Immigration is a tough issue for politicians. It involves huge trade-offs. But the net migration target obscures this fact. Separating out different types of immigration allows the government to sell the benefits of welcoming students, the highly skilled and those who wish to invest without having to tell those concerned about low skilled immigration that they are wrong.

Getting rid of the net migration target is politically possible but only if it is done alongside new and better targets for different areas of inward migration – particularly the low-skilled. If it is, then not only does it allow for better targeted policy that will help appease those most vocally against immigration, it also allows for a better national conversation. Now is the time for a new, honest and better approach to how we reduce immigration.

Phoebe Griffith is Associate Director for Migration, Integration and Communities at IPPR