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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.