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

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.