Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's left and right are growing restive

The right want Ed Miliband to be more "pro-business". The left want him to abandon austerity. His challenge is to hold the centre. 

In the opening years of the parliament, when growth was stagnant and unemployment was rising, Labour could reliably score points at the government's expense. But the strength of the belated economic recovery means it is now much harder to do so. After abandoning its attack on the coalition for cutting "too far, too fast", Labour has profited in the last year from its relentless focus on living standards. But the return of wage rises means that the potency of this attack is likely to diminish between now and the election (even if, for many, the squeeze goes on). With the Tories ahead in the polls on leadership and managing the economy, two reliable long-term indicators of the general election result, and Labour's headline lead far slimmer than a year ago, MPs are growing increasingly uneasy about the party's message. One former shadow cabinet minister told me: "People still don't have a clear idea of what we would do differently in government. We're not generating the enthusiasm we need a year before an election." 

In the last day, two other former shadow ministers have broken cover. From the party's right, former business minister Pat McFadden told Newsnight: "I want to see a Labour Party that takes wealth creation every bit as seriously as its fair distribution. I’m all for justice and fairness in the work place. But you have got to create wealth too." This echoed what Alan Milburn wrote in the FT on Monday when he called for "Labour to embrace a more avowedly pro-business agenda and match it with a more overtly pro-business tone. The Eds need to say it and look like they really mean it." Their fear is that while empathising with the public's anger over extortionate prices and stagnant wages, Labour will look as if it doesn't have the answers required for the hard work of government. 

From the party's left comes a different message. In an article for the Guardian yesterday, Diane Abbott took aim at Ed Balls over his decision to match the coalition's spending levels in 2015-16 and to embrace policies such as a cap for welfare spending. She wrote: "Party members might well ask, in between knocking on doors trying to persuade people to come out and vote in the May elections, what is the Labour leadership's plan to restore confidence in our economic leadership? Balls has a plan. He just does not feel able to spell it out to party members. It is called embracing Tory austerity...And the problem with restoring Labour's reputation for economic management is that we have allowed the coalition to frame the debate."

And concluded: "If we accept the coalition cuts agenda, there will be another £25bn worth of public spending cuts needed after the 2015 election. They will be the deepest since 1948. It is difficult to see how a Labour government that implemented cuts on that scale could last more than one term. So the urgency of framing an alternative to coalition austerity is not just about one month's polls. It is about the long-term survival of an incoming Labour government." For Abbott and the left, the danger is that Labour's fails to represent a genuine alternative to Conservative austerity, leaving voters with little incentive to turn out next May. 

But for others, the danger is not that Labour appears too committed to austerity but that it still appears too profligate. One self-described shadow cabinet "hawk" recently told me that the party needed to "shout much more loudly" about its pledges to eliminate the current deficit and reduce the national debt (as a share of GDP) by the end of the parliament. "We've got tough targets but no one knows about them," he lamented.

For Ed Miliband, the challenge is to hold the centre. His mantra remains that Labour must offer both "credibility" and "radicalism". Unless it commits to tough policies in areas such as public spending, voters won't trust it with the reins of government. But unless it also offers a distinctive alternative to the coalition, they won't believe that it can make a difference - and will stick with the devil that they know.

To this end, while promising to continue public spending cuts, Labour has pledged to freeze energy prices, to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, to abolish the bedroom tax, to reintroduce the 50p tax rate and to guarantee work for all young people unemployed for more than a year and all adults unemployed for more than two. Similarly radical policies on childcare, social care, tuition fees and transport are likely to follow. But as concern over the nature of Labour's offer grows, the party will find it harder than ever to keep its nerve. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.