It's Miliband's 40% strategy that should really worry the Tories

Forget talk of a "35% strategy", the Labour leader is constructing a new centre-left agenda with the potential to build a cross-class coalition.

After initially dismissing him as unelectable, conservative commentators have gradually awoken to the reality that Ed Miliband has a good chance of becoming the next prime minister. The defection of left-leaning Liberal Democrats to Labour and of right-leaning Conservatives to UKIP, and the defeat of the proposed boundary changes, means that the electoral landscape is more favourable to Miliband’s party than previously thought.

But while acknowledging this psephological truth, commentators of left and right have charged the Labour leader with pursuing a “35% strategy” under which a coalition of the party’s core voters and Lib Dem refugees allows him to inch over the line in 2015. Miliband’s alleged want of ambition is contrasted with the big tent politics of Tony Blair, who successfully wooed such demographics as “Worcester woman” and “Mondeo Man”. Under a more overtly centre-left leader, Labour, it is claimed, is now fishing in a smaller pool. But this superficially plausible narrative represents a profound misreading of Miliband’s project. In reality, as Marcus Roberts argues in his forensic new report Labour’s Next Majority, the Labour leader is pursuing something closer to a 40% strategy.

Roberts, the deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society and one of the sharpest minds on the centre-left, has written the best guide yet published to how Labour can win a majority in 2015 and can do so on an unambiguously social democratic platform. (Also see Jeremy Cliffe’s brilliant analysis “The emerging Labour majority?”)

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx observed how “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” It it this pathology that afflicts those who chastise Miliband for his break with Blairism. Time has moved forward 16 years, but their analysis remains stranded in 1997.

As Roberts smartly notes,

There will be voters who go to the polls on 7th May 2015 who weren’t alive when Tony and Cherie Blair posed outside 10 Downing Street on 2nd May 1997. They will have no memory of an event which is a moment of history as distant from them as Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory was for the voters of 1997. Tony Blair understood that then: he did not try to win the election that Jim Callaghan lost, nor to reconstruct Harold Wilson’s winning electoral coalition. If Ed Miliband seeks to emulate what Blair did in 1997, he too must build his own political majority for the era in which he seeks to govern.

He goes on to anatomise the coalition of voters that would enable Labour to secure 40% and, he calculates, an overall majority of 20 (recall the fallibility of uniform swing calculations).

The first and largest group is the party’s core vote, which he estimates at 27.5% after accounting for deaths and defections. Having stuck with Labour in 2010 owing to fear of Conservative spending cuts and “a measure of pride in the achievements of three terms of Labour government”, these voters are attracted by the dividing lines crafted by Miliband since 2010 on tax and public services.

The second, and the largest pool of new voters available to the party, are 2010 Lib Dem supporters, whom Roberts suggests could add 6.5% to Labour’s vote share. Unsurprisingly, it is Miliband’s efforts to woo this group that have been most visible. After his election as Labour leader, he swiftly denounced the Iraq war and distanced himself from the last government’s record on tuition fees, civil liberties and City regulation. Since then, he has embraced Lib Dem policies such as a mansion tax, a 2030 decarbonisation target, higher capital spending and a reduction in the voting age to 16. His refusal to support the government’s Syria strategy was also in line with this group’s anti-war sympathies.

According to most accounts, this is where Miliband’s gameplan ends. Between them, these two groups would give Labour 34-35% of the vote, enough to make it the single largest party. But Roberts, whose number-crunching has won him the admiration of Lord Ashcroft among others, notes three further groups, non-voters (2%), new voters (3%) and former Conservative voters (1%), who could propel Labour to 40%.

It is Miliband’s attempt to appeal to these often socially conservative voters that explains his sustained engagement with the Blue Labour project, most notably through his decision to appoint Jon Cruddas as co-ordinator of the party’s policy review. To the discomfort of some of his left-liberal supporters, he has adopted a nuanced approach towards welfare, promising to reward contribution and cap social security spending, and to immigration, pledging to reduce non-skilled migration and to require companies to train a new apprentice every time they take on a skilled worker from outside the EU. But Roberts also describes the historic potential to unite these ostensibly disparate groups behind a centre-left programme.

He writes:

The roots of this coalition lie in the living standards crisis. In the wake of the crash of 2008 middle class voters find themselves facing the same sorts of insecurities as working class voters. The issues of housing, utility bills, transport costs, unemployment and declining wages means that previously divided groups are now responsive to the same messages. These will likely focus on work, family and place as Labour seeks to offer the specific and tangible changes to the problems they face everyday.

As I noted earlier this week ("If Ed Miliband is a socialist, so are most of the public"), there is a clear and widespread appetite for economic populism. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities.

Roberts writes: “The coalition’s coherence is found in opposition to public spending cuts, worry about the living standards crisis, the reorganisation of the NHS, continued anger at the City and an unreformed banking system, and vested interests in a broken private sector, the rise of unemployment and prevalence of low-pay jobs. Quite simply, the same problems that working class ‘small-c’ conservative voters (be they Conservative 2010 voters, working class non-voters or recent UKIP converts) face are also faced by middle class ‘liberal leftish’ voters. Hence the need and opportunity for politics that appeals to both.”

None of this is to disregard the political obstacles to constructing such a coalition. The instinctive sympathy that many have for Labour’s economic populism will be outweighed by the hostility they feel towards its stances on the deficit, immigration and welfare. Were Miliband to shift rightwards on these issues, he would risk alienating the left-liberal coalition that sustains Labour’s poll lead. But Roberts’s model, which suggests Labour can hope to win no more than 1% of 2010 Tory voters, is “founded on the assumption that Ed Miliband’s appeal to Conservatives is limited at best.”

The ambition, and potential success, of Labour’s strategy should strike fear into Tory hearts. Indeed, the neuralgic response to the party’s pledge to freeze energy prices suggests it already is. The right complains that Miliband could win on 35% of the vote but it’s worse than they think: he’s aiming for 40%. And should he reach that electoral peak he will have what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown never sought nor wanted: a mandate to roll back Thatcherism.

Ed Miliband during a Q&A with party members at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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