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.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad