Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron before listening to Angela Merkel addressing both Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Growth is up, unemployment is down – but Labour's stubborn poll lead remains

On the Labour side there is relief and a sprinkling of surprise that Tory popularity isn’t rising in sync with GDP.

When George Osborne’s plan for the economy was obviously failing, Conservative MPs had the consolation of understanding why they were losing to Ed Miliband. Now that the recovery is established, they find Labour’s lead in opinion polls mystifying. It is disorienting in a race to feel sure of having overtaken someone yet still see him out in front.

On the Labour side there is relief and a sprinkling of surprise that Tory popularity isn’t rising in sync with gross domestic product. For Miliband, this is vindication of the decision last autumn to focus all of Labour’s firepower on the cost of living. He judged that the Treasury was neglecting the causes of domestic hardship and was complacent about the scale of public anger.

Even Milisceptics admit it was a pivotal moment, flummoxing Downing Street and restoring opposition spirits after a despon­dent summer. “If he hadn’t pulled it off we’d be behind in the polls by now,” says one shadow minster. “Everyone would be talking about whether Andy [Burnham] or Yvette [Cooper] would be a better leader.”

Succession gossip is constant in all parties because there are always more egos than vacancies at the top. What matters is not the existence of speculation but how much of it is public. Labour jitters are eclipsed by Tory neurosis. Boris Johnson’s candidacy is openly discussed as if the moribundity of David Cameron’s leadership is a given.

It needn’t be. Miliband’s aides don’t claim to have won any big economic arguments, only to have shifted views of what the argument is about. The Tories are still good at convincing people that any hardship is a consequence of Labour’s misspent rule.

Oppositions can only complain, while governments can act. Thus the Budget was stuffed with devices to rebut the charge of Tory indifference to hardship: subsidies for childcare; support for new homebuyers; tax cuts for low earners; relief for bingo players. Labour dismisses Osborne’s interventions as gimmicks that are “too little, too late”, which is what oppositions say when governments do things that might be popular.

Yet Miliband knows he needs to refresh his attack or face another morale-sapping loss of momentum. He needs to persuade people that the things they don’t like about the UK economy will never change as long as the Tories are in charge because job insecurity, miserable wages and corporate fat-cattery are what Conservatives stand for. In this view, Osborne and Cameron have cooked up a bogus recovery that feeds their friends and leaves crumbs for everyone else.

The challenge is making the case without sounding spiteful. Tories cast any Labour argument about wealth distribution as an attack on honest aspiration and a threat to confiscate middle-class salaries. Business leaders are suspicious of the opposition. That exercises Ed Balls more than Miliband, although anyone who imagines the Labour leader as an anti-capitalist agitator ignores the years he served as a Treasury adviser. As a guide to striking the right tone, aides have been studying Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, delivered on 28 January, in which he promised “new ladders of opportunity” for Americans to whom the benefits of growth are not trickling down.

There is a tension between the appetite for populist attacks on the undeserving rich and the need to reassure wary voters that a Labour government is for everyone and no cause for alarm. Bashing bankers and deriding Downing Street Etonians get pulses racing on the left but they convey a hint of menace that sits uneasily with Miliband’s more inclusive, optimistic “one nation” rhetoric. Activists grumble that “one nation” doesn’t sell on the doorstep.

There is no such dilemma in Downing Street. The terms of the Tory campaign are locked down: Labour burned down the house; Cameron is rebuilding it; give him time to finish the job; beware the arsonists Miliband and Balls offering incendiary debt and taxes. Throw in a referendum on EU membership and you have a formula that every Tory can unite behind. Except they aren’t united. The message has been pumped out loud and clear, the economy is up, unemployment is down and Labour’s stubborn little lead won’t die.

Cameron’s few cheerleaders insist the Tory vote share is a lagging indicator, tracking good economic news but with a delay. In support of this thesis they point to a small but discernible narrowing trend in the polls. Give it time, they say, and Miliband’s freakish endurance will end. Besides, the argument continues, voting intention is just one of three classic general election predictors and by no means the most reliable. On the others – who is trusted to run the economy; who makes the best leader – Cameron is ahead.

A similar view can be found in Labour circles, expressed as a prayer that Tory infighting might drag Cameron down before a wave of economic confidence carries him to safety. Yet Miliband’s allies speculate (as much in hope as expectation) that the economy may have boosted the Tories as much as it ever will. The Chancellor says his plan has worked and that his Budget brings blessed relief to the nation’s toiling classes. Maybe everyone who is inclined to buy that story is already voting Tory and no one else is listening.

The evidence is inconclusive. We know only that the opposition can sustain a lead through four quarters of good economic news. But for how much longer? Cameron and Osborne think the laws of political gravity will kick in to their advantage. They feel that the economic argument has been settled in their favour and that it is only a matter of time before the opinion polls confirm that they are winning.

Such unquestioning confidence helps explain why they aren’t. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Photo: Getty
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Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.

 

The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.