Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Ed Miliband a lucky general?

The party's visceral attacks on the Lib Dems show it is staking everything on a majority. 

I think it’s fair to say the latest Labour Party Election Broadcast (PEB) hasn’t received universal acclaim, with folk on all sides asking "what were they thinking of?"

I was fortunate enough to spend some years working side by side with the three partners who formed Lucky Generals, the ad agency that produced the broadcast for Labour. I can tell you that they are creative, accomplished and – most pertinently – highly intelligent individuals. Indeed, one of them has received more awards for advertising effectiveness than anyone else in the business.

So they won’t have produced that PEB on a whim because they thought it would be funny or out of creative indulgence. They’ll have produced it because it will deliver strategically against what they have been told are the Labour Party’s goals. And I think that probably tells us quite a lot about Labour’s 2015 general election strategy. That strategy is, to use a technical term from adland, "shit or bust"; or in political parlance, it’s the 35 per cent strategy.

As the political arithmetic under the constituency boundaries means Labour only needs to poll the 35 per cent it currently polls to win a majority (as opposed to 42 per cent for the Tories), Labour appears to have decided to hold on to what it's got. That PEB is designed to do two things to the Lib Dems. It tells disaffected voters from 2010 who have defected to Labour why they should stick with them. And it puts two fingers up to the Lib Dems in terms of any future coalition negotiations. Despite some evidence to the contrary, it seems Labour really still do resent the "Gordon has to go" red line put down by the Lib Dems in 2010.

But by basically now making it very difficult to see how the Lib Dems can ever now go into a coalition with the party responsible for that ad, Labour is saying "we must win a majority in 2015" – or decide to try and run a minority government.

The latter would probably last until autumn – when after a no confidence vote, the Tories, well-funded, basking in the difficulties thrown up by Labour running a minority government for six months and with a new leader (step forward, Boris) – will streak home again in a second general election. So, it all comes down to – can Labour win a majority at the first time of asking in May 2015?

Lucky Generals is named after the Napoleonic quote - "I have plenty of clever generals but just give me a lucky one". Ed Miliband must hope he is just such a lucky general. But to all those in the Lib Dems railing at the PEB and gnashing their teeth, can I suggest an alternative Napoleonic quote? "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.