What sort of prime minister would Miliband make?

For a leader who clearly favours consensus over conflict, Miliband will need to get used to saying 'no' to groups and lobbies who have previously enjoyed an easy ride with Labour.

Part of the reaction to Ed Miliband’s speech earlier this week, signalling seismic changes in Labour’s relations with affiliated trade unions, was the boldness of his move. Not to be rude, but we’re not used to that from Ed. Cautious and incremental steps are what we usually get. It begs the question: what sort of prime minister would he make?

Last Friday, an unnamed former Labour minister told the Guardian that Miliband needed to move decisively in reframing the relationship with the trade unions, following the Falkirk selection debacle. "We need to have a commission that looks at the union link. All the general secretaries need to sign up to it. We need to get to a place where you simply have one category of Labour party members. There should no longer be a formal union affiliation.

"Of course, if unions want to donate to the party they can. Ed is not there yet. But he will be. He acts in a deliberative way. But when he makes a decision he moves very rapidly."

And so it came to pass. Miliband showed he was willing to square-up to Unite and announce changes revolutionising trade union involvement in the party that many observers thought were beyond him. Tony Blair’s glowing tribute was both genuine and generous. So does this week signal the emergence of Miliband 2.0?

Not really. His move was a superb piece of reactive political boldness (it’s hard to think he had such major reform in mind two weeks ago). Opportunistic, rather than instinctive, but decisive, too, when his mind is made up; and being able to react to big events is, after all, the stuff of the premiership.

In an interview last month, Lord Stewart Wood, shadow minister without portfolio and invariably described as Miliband’s consiglieri, offered this assessment of his boss: "In terms of style, Ed is collegiate. He looks for views early, before he makes up his mind. Gordon [Brown] wanted us to respond to his ideas [after] he had already taken them a long way down the line." He added: "Unlike a lot of other politicians, he invites people to give him constructive criticism. He has a desire to improve [and] he solicits views from people across the party."

As a senior adviser to Gordon Brown, and later energy secretary, Miliband was a mainstay throughout 13 years of Labour government and saw first hand the damage done to the government by the Blair/Brown wars. If his "collegiate" style is a reaction to that, then Wood is certainly right about his willingness to learn and improve.

But the government machine he would inherit in 2015 is markedly different to the one he left behind as a cabinet minister in 2010. The social democratic model of the New Labour years is now defunct. It is not enough to throw money at projects and move on to the next thing. Spending cuts and those infernal 'hard choices' will be the order of the day for the foreseeable future.

Prime Minister Miliband will need to speak the "language of priorities" and know a thoroughbred idea from a civil servant’s hobby-horse in order to make his small state socialism work. For a leader who clearly favours consensus over conflict, Miliband will need to get used to saying 'no' to groups and lobbies who have previously enjoyed an easy ride with Labour. Here he can learn from his predecessors.

Blair was good at building an effective team around him, yet there are still too few Milibandites willing to put their shoulder to the wheel for their man. While Gordon Brown ruled by pulling a thousand strings and making the Whitehall machine do his bidding, Miliband often gives the impression of making things up as he goes along. Yet despite this, he is far better prepared for the realities of power than Blair and Brown were in 1997 and his shadow cabinet is one of the most experienced since the Second World War.

Temperamentally, though, Miliband seems closer to President Obama than any of his immediate British predecessors. He is prepared to address vested interests but does so cautiously in closely-scoped terms, witness his criticisms of banks and energy companies, and sometimes seems unsure how far to push things.

Perhaps he should triangulate between Tony Blair’s informal sofa government and Margaret Thatcher’s manic swinging handbag? Where Miliband’s bridge-building style will work well, though, is if there’s another hung parliament in 2015; exercising soft power to build alliances and seek common ground in a way neither Blair nor Brown were well-suited to. For those who balked at the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband a week ago, how he would govern in 2015 has suddenly become a very real preoccupation.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.