Miliband promises "big changes in our economy" in New Year message

The Labour leader emphasises his long-term plan to reform capitalism in an attempt to rebut the charge that he is too focused on short-term measures.

It is Ed Miliband's focus on living standards that has allowed him to define the political agenda for months, leaving the Tories in a strategic tailspin, so it's no surprise to see him put this theme at the centre of his New Year message. He says: "We are in the midst of the biggest cost-of-living crisis in a generation. Whether it’s people being unable to afford the weekly shop or worried about the gas and electric bill - or saying 'I have always thought of myself as reasonably well off but I’m really having trouble making ends meet'.

"Somebody said to me the other day 'I can't afford this government'; surely we can do better than this as a country. I think people are hurting, people are wanting us to do better. People are thinking 'look, I've made the sacrifices, where's the benefit? The government keeps telling me that everything is fixed, but it doesn't seem fixed for me.'"

To this, the Tories will reply that Miliband is only talking about living standards because he can't bear to talk about the economy; the rise in growth and the fall in unemployment. But as one senior Labour strategist told me, "For any normal voter, living standards are the economy." Conceding as much, George Osborne's advisers argue that wages are a 'lagging indicator' and that higher output will soon translate into higher salaries. But even if average wages do rise above inflation next year, the gains are likely to be concentrated among high-earners and, as the IFS recently stated, most voters will still be worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010.

But alive to the charge that Labour is too narrowly focused on short-measures, such as the energy price freeze, Miliband offers a preview of what will be one of his key messages in 2014: the need to make "big changes in our economy" in order to ensure that "we can earn and grow our way to a higher standard of living for people." The aim will be to show that Labour has a plan to deliver a permanent, rather than merely a temporary improvement in living standards.

Aware that one of the party's greatest challenges is convincing voters that it can be trusted to manage the public finances, Labour strategists are also keen to emphasise that this won't be achieved through greater borrowing or through endless spending pledges. Miliband says: "People do not want the earth. They would much prefer some very specific promises, specific things about what a government will do - whether it’s freezing energy bills, taking action on pay day lenders, or tackling issues around childcare which lots of working parents face. All of this is adding up to a programme for how we can change things. It’s clearly costed, it’s credible and it’s real."

One of the strengths of his pledge to freeze energy prices is that it does not involve a single pound of public money being spent. For the Tories, the unresolved dilemma remains whether to try and outbid Labour on living standards, or to continue to fight on their preferred terrain of the deficit and GDP.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Miliband's message is his attempt to manage expectations. He ends by stating that there are "no easy answers"  but that Labour would seek to "tip the balance towards hope and away from the struggles that you are facing." Some in Labour are concerned that a Miliband government, forced to make further cuts to public spending and introduce tax rises, could become rapidly unpopular (as Hollande's administration has in France). By emphasising that he won't be able to transform the British economy overnight, Miliband is rightly seeking to counter that danger.

As Jacob Hacker, the US theorist behind 'predistribution' told me earlier this year, "You’re not going to get a big bang of policy change. Instead, what progressives need to do is gain office, do some important things that improve the overall situation of the squeezed middle, and then get re-elected and repeat." With just 16 months to go until the election, Miliband is nudging Labour towards realism.

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton in September. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.