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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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era