How Labour can turn the economic recovery to its advantage

Osborne's instinct will be to use the extra revenue for faster deficit reduction or tax cuts. But Labour can argue for an alternative centred around investment.

Economic headlines are a tricky business when political parties are in opposition. The easy temptation is to treat bad news as good, and good news as bad. So how should Labour respond now that the economy finally appears to be on the mend? 

It's true that much is still wrong, with housing costs spiralling, pay stagnant and millions not working for as many hours as they wish to; but Labour must avoid always being 'glass half empty'. The party should celebrate good news and where possible draw the links to its own legacy in govermment. 

Take, for example, the largely unheralded announcement that the number of households where no one works had reached its lowest level since records began. In terms of family life chances, this is perhaps a more important measure than unemployment, and its low level is a credit to past Labour policies, for example the party's support for lone parents.

The politics of a 'recovery' election won't be easy, of course. The right-wing media will talk up the government's handling of the economy and George Osborne will try to use a nascent housing bubble and debt-funded consumer spending to create the veneer of prosperity. But this is not mission impossible. Labour has come to power in similar circumstances, in 1964 and 1997, and it's sometimes said that voters are more likely to turn to an untested Labour opposition when the economy is in reasonable health. 

Labour can win the economic debate by showing it is the only party which has positive answers on family living standards and long-term economic prosperity. The party will use the next two years to highlight the gradual erosion in standards of living, but now it must also start to announce convincing solutions for relieving pressurised family budgets, which are more persuasive than a Tory offer of pre-election tax cuts. That should mean short-term steps like a higher minimum wage and better support to help work pay for parents. 

But it also means unveiling policies which show that only Labour is truly seeking to shift the economic balance of power in favour of ordinary people. Fabian research published this month shows the public is overwhelmingly suspicious of a return to 'business as usual' and believes prosperity for families will not return without radical change in the way the economy works. Labour must define itself as the party of 'change' against 'more of the same'. 

Fiscal policy will provide another dividing line. In November, projections for future government revenue will be revised upwards for the first time since the coalition came to power. George Osborne's instinct will be to spend the extra money on faster deficit reduction or tax cuts. But Labour will be able to argue for an alternative, without being accused of hidden tax plans. The party should demand that the proceeds of growth are used to prevent the fraying of the services people value most and to increase investment geared to the future, which is gradually declining as a proportion of spending.

To prove Labour is the party of long-term prosperity, it could promise to use the extra revenue only to support the most productive areas of public spending, ploughing money generated from economic recovery back into investment in education and infrastructure. This commitment would supplant Ed Balls's current proposal for a one-off stimulus for capital spending, which is being taken over by events. Labour can show that it is the party of economic responsibility and long-termism by promising the first call on the extra money from recovery should be spending for our economic future.

Ed Miliband arrives on stage at the Labour Party conference on September 22, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad