Consumer Socialism? Ed might be onto something here

The Labour leader is right to make defending consumers a mission of the left. But that means tackling failed state services too.

People rarely lurch outside Westminster, unless they are drunk. By contrast, party leaders do it all the time, and quite sober, although in their case it has a specific meaning. (Lurch v. intrans - the movement of a politician in a direction simultaneously craved by his party and deemed by conventional wisdom to be where elections are lost.) Using that definition, Ed Miliband has lurched to the left because his party conference speech proposed big, heavy-handed interventions in the private sector. A vigorous debate followed about how lurchy the lurch really was given that governments intervene in all kinds of markets all the time. There is also an ancillary debate about whether these specific interventions, particularly the proposal to freeze fuel bills, will work.

Less attention has been paid to what I think is a central political ambition of the speech – the attempt to change the way people talk about Miliband’s leadership. His obvious deficiency in opinion polls is the perception that he is weak and will never comfortably fill Prime Ministerial shoes. Already he is being discussed differently: as a danger rather than a joke, which is a short-term win for Labour because a weakling is not a threat. If Miliband is now a menace, he must be less weak.

But there was more to the leadership argument in the speech than simply firing off deliberately controversial policies so that everyone runs around dizzily talking about how bold – or Bolshevik – and decisive Miliband can be. His point is that David Cameron is strong because he has mighty friends in the media, in big business, in finance. By contrast, the Labour leader wants to be strong on behalf of the defenceless. In a traditional left taxonomy of power that means the downtrodden masses, who have thus far in the parliament been effectively cordoned off from public sympathy as undeserving benefit claimants.

Now Miliband has identified a new and much larger group of people who feel put upon, ignored and oppressed – consumers. The Labour leader is definitely onto something if he can put himself on the side of the people who pay the bills, buy the rail tickets, wait on hold to speak to an advisor, while a mechanical voice reassures them that the company considers their call important when plainly it doesn’t. And he is onto something even stronger if he can trap the Tories into being the mechanical voice on the end of the line.

The reason it doesn’t make sense to compare Miliband’s moves to 1970s-style Socialism is that much of the infrastructure of our lives is run by the private sector and will be for the foreseeable future. The challenge for politics is how to meet the demands of citizens who feel the provision of those essential private services is inadequate. If electricity or broadband or transport or whatever are deemed too expensive and the market isn’t working to bring down prices, what is government going to do about it? The menu of options contains variations on control, regulation and liberalisation. You either stamp on the market, limit the market or create more market.

A little-noticed feature of Miliband’s energy agenda is that it uses bits of all three. The freeze is a temporary measure to be imposed while reforms are introduced to make the consumer electricity and gas market more competitive. Labour people aren’t exactly boasting about that because the party faithful prefer the bit about bashing corporate giants to the bit about efficient markets, new entrants and competition being the best way to serve customers in the long term – and the reform side is also the least developed part of the policy. There are some Labour front-benchers who are keen to get that latter part of the argument out there but loyalty to the tone of the leader’s speech is the key this week.

If some balance is restored – if it is made clear that Miliband is actually pursuing a new kind of consumer-focused, market-literate social democracy – he will have carved out a genuinely exciting space for Labour to talk about reforming the economy so it works for the majority. The problem is that consumers don’t just consume in the private sector. They also rely on the state and that too is a huge source of frustration, rip-off, neglect and computer-says-no demoralisation. If Miliband wants to be a crusader for the oppressed masses of consumer-citizens he also needs a story to tell about state reform. He knows this and indeed made the point to me in an interview earlier this year, saying that the “unresponsive state” was as much a matter for political grievance as failed markets. The question that naturally follows is how he will define himself in relation to failures of state power in the way he is currently defining himself as a scourge of failed markets.

Whether he likes it or not, part of that story will be told through the parable of his relationship with trade unions. Labour cannot reform the state without either getting the consent of or winning confrontation with the representatives of organised public sector workers. Miliband wants to present himself as the man who stands up to vested interests as opposed to Cameron - the man who is in the pocket of Big Money. To pull that off, he needs a satisfactory resolution to the confrontation he is already in with the “vested interests” on his own side.

Two years ago, when I asked senior Labour strategists whether this was a problem, they dismissed the analogy. The feeling then was that unions were not hugely unpopular and that if the Tories tried to paint some equivalence between Unite and the City, they would just look ridiculous. Over time that view changed and since the Falkirk row it has been clear that people very close to Miliband see his party reforms as a prominent emblem of his willingness to tackle obstacles to change – “ripping up the rules” - on his own side too. It comes back to that ambition to re-cast Ed as the man of deep, intellectual courage and strength in contrast to Cameron’s insubstantial swagger. The forthcoming battle with the unions has thus acquired even greater significance in the light of Miliband’s conference speech. It is the symbolic counterpoint to his assault on failed markets; it is the chapter in the story that is meant to demonstrate that he has not lurched left after all, nor triangulated right as the old New Labour playbook dictated he should, but instead represents something quite new.

As far as the detail of any settlement with the unions is concerned, there is sure to be a slightly messy compromise. Miliband cannot afford to bankrupt his party by provoking a great schism. Union leaders will not want to damage the Labour leader so much in the haggling that they end up sabotaging the party’s election prospects. What matters most in broader political terms is that Miliband comes out of it with something that can plausibly be held aloft as a victory. No less important, since the Tories will denounce any deal as a capitulation to union paymasters and proof of reversion to the 1970s, it matters that the union leaders look defeated, even if in practice they are not. 

Miliband’s political fortunes over the next few months depend substantially on whether he can embed in the public mind the idea that he is stronger than he looks. For that to work, he needs his enemies to look threatened. So far the Tories are playing along by sounding hysterical about the lights going out, as if insisting on lower bills is a threat to civilisation. The next test is whether the Labour leader’s adversaries on the left will be equally obliging.

Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton. Source: Getty

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

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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