Former SDP leader David Owen said he had donated to Labour to help it "rescue our NHS". Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Owen joins Miliband's big tent with donation to Labour of more than £7,500

With the former SDP leader, Tony Blair and Len McCluskey all backing his reforms, Miliband has built an impressively large coalition of support.

David Owen is so impressed by Ed Miliband's party reforms that he's donated more than £7,500 to Labour (the exact figure has not been announced but £7,500 is the legal threshold for declaration). As party treasurers estimate the cost of Miliband's reforms, it's money that will be gratefully received. Labour figures have long hoped that the former SDP leader, who has previously spoken of his admiration for Miliband (and is close to him and his strategist Stewart Wood), could be persuaded to rejoin the party. He hasn't (yet) - he will now sit as an "independent social democrat" rather than a crossbench peer in the House of Lords - but his decision to donate is still a significant endorsement of Miliband.

Owen's stated reason for giving money is to help Labour "rescue our NHS". He was one of the fiercest opponents of the coalition's health reforms (as a former GP) and warned in the New Statesman in 2011 that "[if] the Liberal Democrats cannot call a halt to or, at the very least, slow down, these ill-conceived health reforms they will no longer be able to claim to be the heirs of Beveridge" (they did not). He said last night:

This is a brave and bold reform ... and one I strenuously argued for as a Labour MP at the special conference on Saturday 25 January 1981. This very desirable change, nevertheless, threatens to weaken Labour's financial support at a critical time, when I and many others are hoping to see the party produce a plan for government from May next year to rescue our NHS. Saving the NHS is my main political priority, and I suspect that of many others.

To help Labour reverse the 2012 NHS legislation without yet another major reorganisation, I have made a declarable contribution of over £7,500 to Labour funds. Unless there is a change of government, the NHS in England will be completely destroyed by 2020.

In response, Miliband said:

Today Labour has come together and shown the courage needed to change our party. The reforms agreed today are supported across the party, by trade union general secretaries, grassroots activists and former prime ministers.

In the 80s and 90s these reforms were seen as impossible but there is broad consensus within the Labour Party that change must happen. That is testament to how far we have come as a movement.

Lord Owen’s support today is welcome. It is 33 years since he left our party and much has happened since. In our many conversations over the past few years, I have come to value his friendship and insight into politics. I value his support and respect his decision to remain an independent member of the House of Lords.

With Tony Blair, Len McCluskey and Owen all enthusiastically backing the reforms, Miliband has built an impressively large tent (as I said last night). One of the quiet successes of his leadership has been maintaining the support of all wings of the party, while also attracting support from former Lib Dems and other progressives.

Before he announced that public spending would be cut under a Labour government, many predicted that the unions would break with the party and run their own candidates. Others warned that Miliband's repudiation of New Labour would lead to Blairite resignations. But both fears proved mistaken. Miliband has retained the support of all Labour's affiliated unions and leading Blairite figures (Stephen Twigg, Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne) have chosen to accept demotions, rather than retreat to the backbenches. The maintenance of party unity is one of the key reasons why he is in a strong position to win the general election next year.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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