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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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.