Leader: Labour is struggling. Here is how it could do better

Party morale is low, but there is a way to recovery.

Labour enters its penultimate conference before the next general election with party morale lower than at almost any other point since the resounding defeat of 2010. The return of economic growth, coinciding with a sharper and more confident Conservative performance, has narrowed its poll lead to the extent that it can no longer be confident of winning a majority. The party unity that had characterised Ed Miliband’s leadership was fractured by the Falkirk selection debacle, which pitted senior figures such as Labour’s former campaign co-ordinator Tom Watson and the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, against each other, and has yet to return.

Mr Miliband’s trade union reforms, which will require union members to “opt in” to joining the party, are likely to cost Labour roughly £8m in lost affiliation fees but there is little enthusiasm for his ambition to build a mass membership party. Union leaders complain, with some justification, that the party has failed to outline a policy agenda capable of persuading their members to sign up.

Among the electorate, Labour is increasingly regarded with a mixture of indifference and hostility. Much of the press despises the party and does not respect its leader. Even those instinctively loyal to the party complain that they no longer know what it stands for. Having failed to define itself, Labour is in danger of being defined by its opponents – as fiscally profligate, anti-business, opposed to all and any welfare reform and impervious to anxiety over immigration. Mr Miliband continues to trail behind David Cameron as a preferred prime minister, with personal ratings only marginally better than those of Nick Clegg. The Tories enjoy a convincing lead as the most economically competent party. The danger for Labour is that just as it finally unveils its policies, voters will have lost faith in its capacity to deliver them.

If many in Labour appear morose, it is partly because their hopes were raised last year. Mr Miliband’s appropriation of Benjamin Disraeli and his rhetoric of the “one nation” provided Labour with a powerful frame with which to set itself against a socially and economically divisive Conservative Party that has been defeated decisively in Scotland and much of the north of England. But in the months since, Labour has failed to develop the emblematic policies required to make the concept relevant to voters. Instead, “one nation” has become a mere rhetorical appendage, lazily attached to every shadow ministerial brief. It has stood for everything, so it has stood for nothing.

Mr Miliband’s good fortune is that, for reasons largely beyond his control, he retains a better-than-even chance of becoming prime minister after the next election. Because of the vagaries of the British electoral system, Labour needs a lead of just 1 per cent on a uniform swing to win a majority, while the Conservatives require a lead of 7 per cent.

Owing to the defection of left-leaning Liberal Democrats to Labour and of right-leaning Conservatives to the UK Independence Party, Labour’s lead in the polls, although slight, remains consistent. Yet Mr Miliband’s project was supposed to be about much more than scraping over the line with the aid of voters who are resentful of the coalition. It promised an economic and social transformation.

In an interview with the New Statesman last year, the Labour leader spoke ambitiously of his plan to remake British capitalism and to end the pursuit of short-term profit over long-term investment. Twelve months later, he is no closer to explaining how this will be achieved in a globalised era in which capital transcends national boundaries and companies relentlessly seek out low-wage, low-tax locations.

More promising is his preoccupation with declining living standards and the struggles of the so-called squeezed middle. Just as wages fell before the recession, so they continue to fall during the recovery. Earnings are unlikely to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest, leaving the average adult £6,660 worse off. Yet if Mr Miliband is to secure power, it will not be enough to convince voters they are poorer under the coalition. He will need to convince them that they would be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney resurrected Ronald Reagan’s well-known line – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” –but the electorate sided with Barack Obama because the numbers were at least moving in the right direction.

To persuade a risk-averse electorate to return Labour to office after just one term in opposition, the party needs to produce transformative policies on wages, jobs, education, housing and childcare that clearly distinguish it from the coalition. It needs a vision of the kind of country it wants Britain to become. How would it reform public services? On the issue of welfare, it needs to recapture the old spirit of William Beveridge and the contributory principle. It ought to think seriously about the EU and Britain’s place within it. It needs to say how it would, in the aftermath of the referendum on Scottish independence, set about reconfiguring the Union. What of the English question, about which Anthony Barnett writes so energetically on page 46?

Once he has established a positive policy agenda, Mr Miliband needs to assemble a team capable of explaining it to a sceptical electorate. The performance of the shadow cabinet has been lacklustre. Mr Miliband urgently needs to shake it up; he needs both new talent and more experience. Before the next election we would like to see the return of Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson to the front bench, if they can be persuaded. Andrew Adonis, the former schools minister and architect of the academies programme, should return with immediate effect to the shadow cabinet. He speaks and writes with power and conviction; his personal story is inspiring. He has been a forceful and persuasive critic of the failures of the coalition. He believes in big projects and is a committed social reformer.

Mr Miliband should also look to a popular and experienced backbench figure such as Margaret Hodge (interviewed by Caroline Crampton on page 15). As chair of the public accounts select committee, Ms Hodge, at the age of 69, has remade herself as an indomitable foe of avarice and waste. Alongside this, he should promote the most promising MPs from the 2010 intake, including Stella Creasy (who outlines her optimistic vision of the future on page 39) and others such as Liz Kendall and Rushanara Ali.

Labour’s charge that recovery has come too late and risks enriching the few at the expense of the many is a potent one. Yet as the excellent plan to extend free school meals to all five-to-seven-year-olds demonstrates, the coalition is already working to blunt the opposition’s claim that it is presiding over a “cost-of-living crisis”. While Mr Miliband can only talk, the government can act. The next week is one of the last opportunities he will have to persuade voters that Labour can answer the questions it first posed.

Ed Miliband speaks at the annual TUC conference. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.