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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.