Labour's policy ideas are pointless if the public just isn't listening

Miliband must address deeper public grievances if banking, benefits and other reforms Labour announces this month are to even get a hearing.

“I don’t know who that is,” says a young man on Tottenham Court Road when I ask about Ed Miliband. The Labour leader, I say as he waits impatiently at a bus stop. “Oh - yeah, I’ll probably vote Labour,” he replies, leaping onto a bus before I can catch his name.

Announcing policies is worth little if nobody is listening. Round the corner at University College London (UCL), Miliband had just given a major speech on his plans to shake up the banking market. Labour’s biggest challenge for 2014 may be less a matter of winning the arguments than convincing the electorate that its arguments are worth listening to. It cannot be confident of winning an election on the votes of people who cannot name its leader.

The responses of passers-by to Miliband’s speech on Friday suggest he must deal with profound public grievances over broken promises, immigration and uninspiring leadership before he can win support for new ideas. Especially when the ideas are about subjects as unsexy as the bank lending market.

Charmain Stanley, a jobseeker trying to set up a juice bar, may benefit from banking reform but thinks little of Miliband.

“Getting funding for it is an absolute nightmare. I’ve got a business proposal, I’m passionate and I’ve done my research but banks aren’t willing to fund me coming off benefits,” says Charmain, a former waitress.

“I don’t like Miliband as such, but maybe more competition would make banks help a lot of people out there like me who are trying to get ideas off the ground and get off benefits," she says. Why does she dislike Miliband? “He’s not very honest - though I tend to rank them all the same. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in politics. It’s why I don’t vote. But if they stuck to their word, I’d happily vote, and encourage other people too as well.”

Mark Toovey, a retired engineer, is not convinced Miliband’s proposal will work.

“I wouldn’t have thought it would make any difference, to tell the truth. There’s quite a few banks out there anyway, and a new one, Metro,” he says, pointing to HSBC and NatWest branches along the street.

He is more impressed by the Labour leader’s cost-of-living agenda, but shares Charmaine’s deep mistrust of politicians. “Capping energy prices – that’s a good idea. But whoever’s in opposition, they’re always saying we’re going to cap and cut this or that. It’s just a ploy to get your vote, isn’t it? They don’t mean it.” Can Labour do anything to gain his support? “No.  I don’t like Miliband. Labour let too many people into the country.”

 Paul Belisle, a demolition worker from Newcastle, is also more concerned by immigration.

“Miliband’s just another w***, like the rest of them,” he says bitterly. “Look at the state the country’s in now. We can’t accommodate all these foreigners – I don’t mind the culture, but wages are getting lower and lower, all the time. They work for next to nothing, and it starts to affect us.” Such anger suggests Labour have some way to go in convincing the public they are sorry for past mistakes, and serious about dealing with them.

“It doesn’t interest me,” Paul says of Miliband’s new banking policy. “I don’t vote, or pay a great deal of attention.” Could anything persuade him to vote? “Well there is one thing. Throw all the foreigners out. None of the politicians have done enough.”

Students Isaac Qureshi and Lizzy Hughes think the policy is ridiculous, and the Labour leader even more so.

“People would rather Miliband sorted out the pickle the big banks are in, rather than creating more smaller banks,” says Isaac, a languages student at UCL. ”I don’t think anyone really gives a monkeys what he says, especially a speech on the fine details. He’s a bit of a laughing stock to be honest, and he’s too non-descript to hold your attention.”

 Lizzy adds: “When someone mentions Cameron, it’s usually with a negative or positive opinion. But at least it’s an opinion. I actually can’t remember what Miliband looks like.”

Isaac and Lizzy look back blankly when I ask what they make of Labour’s cost-of-living agenda. Had they heard about plans to cap energy prices? Both of them shake their heads. Fewer than 500 metres away, Miliband won a standing ovation as he rounded off his speech. “We can only do better if the conversation in politics catches up with our country,” he had told the loyal Labour crowd. Better get running then, Ed.

Ed Miliband outlines policies for banking reform in his speech last week at the University of London. Photograph: Getty Images
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Let's seize our chance of a progressive alliance in Richmond - or we'll all be losers

Labour MPs have been brave to talk about standing aside. 

Earlier this week something quite remarkable happened. Three Labour MPs, from across the party’s political spectrum, came together to urge their party to consider not fielding a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election. In the face of a powerful central party machine, it was extremely brave of them to do what was, until very recently, almost unthinkable: suggest that people vote for a party that wasn’t their own.
Just after the piece from Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis and Jonathan Reynolds was published, I headed down to the Richmond Park constituency to meet local Green members. It felt like a big moment – an opportunity to be part of something truly ground-breaking – and we had a healthy discussion about the options on the table. Rightly, the decision about whether to stand in elections is always down to local parties, and ultimately the sense from the local members present was that it would be difficult  not to field a candidate unless Labour did the same. Sadly, even as we spoke, the Labour party hierarchy was busily pouring cold water on the idea of working together to beat the Conservatives. The old politics dies hard - and it will not die unless and until all parties are prepared to balance local priorities with the bigger picture.
A pact of any kind would not simply be about some parties standing down or aside. It would be about us all, collectively, standing together and stepping forward in a united bid to be better than what is currently on offer. And it would be a chance to show that building trust now, not just banking it for the future, can cement a better deal for local residents. There could be reciprocal commitments for local elections, for example, creating further opportunities for progressive voices to come to the fore.
While we’ve been debating the merits of this progressive pact in public, the Conservatives and Ukip have, quietly, formed an alliance of their own around Zac Goldsmith. In this regressive alliance, the right is rallying around a candidate who voted to pull Britain out of Europe against the wishes of his constituency, a man who shocked many by running a divisive and nasty campaign to be mayor of London. There’s a sad irony in the fact it’s the voices of division that are proving so effective at advancing their shared goals, while proponents of co-operation cannot get off the starting line.
Leadership is as much about listening as anything else. What I heard on Wednesday was a local party that is passionate about talking to people and sharing what the Greens have to offer. They are proud members of our party for a reason – because they know we stand for something unique, and they have high hopes of winning local elections in the area.  No doubt the leaders of the other progressive parties are hearing the same.
Forming a progressive alliance would be the start of something big. At the core of any such agreement must be a commitment to electoral reform - and breaking open politics for good. No longer could parties choose to listen only to a handful of swing voters in key constituencies, to the exclusion of everyone else. Not many people enjoy talking about the voting system – for most, it’s boring – but as people increasingly clamour for more power in their hands, this could really have been a moment to seize.
Time is running out to select a genuine "unity" candidate through an open primary process. I admit that the most likely alternative - uniting behind a Liberal Democrat candidate in Richmond Park - doesn’t sit easily with me, especially after their role in the vindictive Coalition government.  But politics is about making difficult choices at the right moment, and this is one I wanted to actively explore, because the situation we’re in is just so dire. There is a difference between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Failing to realise that plays into the hands of Theresa May more than anyone else.
And, to be frank, I'm deeply worried. Just look at one very specific, very local issue and you’ll perhaps understand where I'm coming from. It’s the state of the NHS in Brighton and Hove – it’s a system that’s been so cut up by marketisation and so woefully underfunded that it’s at breaking point. Our hospital is in special measures, six GP surgeries have shut down and private firms have been operating ambulances without a license. Just imagine what that health service will look like in ten years, with a Conservative party still in charge after beating a divided left at another general election.
And then there is Brexit. We’re hurtling down a very dangerous road – which could see us out of the EU, with closed borders and an economy in tatters. It’s my belief that a vote for a non-Brexiteer in Richmond Park would be a hammer blow to Conservatives at a time when they’re trying to remould the country in their own image after a narrow win for the Leave side in the referendum.
The Green party will fight a passionate and organised campaign in Richmond Park – I was blown away by the commitment of members, and I know they’ll be hitting the ground running this weekend. On the ballot on 1 December there will only be one party saying no to new runways, rejecting nuclear weapons and nuclear power and proposing a radical overhaul of our politics and democracy. I’ll go to the constituency to campaign because we are a fundamentally unique party – saying things that others refuse to say – but I won’t pretend that I don’t wish we could have done things differently.

I believe that moments like this don’t come along very often – but they require the will of all parties involved to realise their potential. Ultimately, until other leaders of progressive parties face the electoral facts, we are all losers, no matter who wins in Richmond Park.


Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.