Ed Miliband speaking in the target seat of Thurrock last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's timid approach isn't working - it needs to think bigger

The 12 policies the party needs for a popular and a radical manifesto.

Two years ago the Labour Party was a policy vacuum and it was hard to know what it thought about anything. Not any more. In recent months its policy pledges have come thick and fast. From freezing fuel prices to a new benefit for under-21s, no longer can critics claim that the party has nothing to say.

But still something is missing. The promises are reasonable enough on their own terms but they whole is less than the sum of the parts. Each announcement is finely calibrated to maximise "doorstep" appeal. But most of them seem to bounce off the public without registering at all. The reason is because Labour’s policy doesn’t fit into a wider story about what the party wants to do with power.

new Fabian report published today argues that Labour’s "doorstep" pledges won’t win a hearing unless the party explains how it will bring deep change to Britain’s economy, society and government. In other words, Labour needs to promise a five-year programme that will leave Britain a different, better country by 2020.

The report makes 12 recommendations which are large enough in scale to collectively set a new course. If implemented they would create a clear rupture with the policies and priorities of the coalition and prove that voting Labour makes a difference. For this isn’t something to smuggle past the electorate, hoping not to scare the horses. Labour has to "go big" because otherwise no one will make sense of how the small, short-term pledges all hang together.

Some of our ideas are already in the Labour Party’s bloodstream, but caught in internal battles between radicals and incrementalists. For example Andy Burnham, who addresses the Fabian summer conference today, has a bold plan to merge health and care services but it is being gradually diluted. The detail of boardroom reforms to give workers a voice are still far from clear. And Labour’s pledge to build 200,000 homes is not yet accompanied by the big new powers and financial freedoms councils will need to make it happen.

Other proposals in the report mark a departure, for example on inequality. Labour has to decide whether it has the steel to call for policies that would truly turn the tide on the rising poverty and inequality we can now expect for decades ahead.

Ed Miliband has promised to raise the minimum wage but after that it needs to be permanently indexed to average earnings and accompanied by a Living Wage for public service workers. Meanwhile, two other essential solutions are not even being considered. First, the party must extend the indexation of social security to earnings beyond pensioners to people who are disabled, in work or looking after under-5s. Otherwise poverty will rise remorselessly. Second, it must promise a five-year programme of radical tax reform, to raise revenue more fairly and end the corrupting incentives of today’s system.

Next, the party needs to show it means it when it says it wants to bring long-term responsibility to the economy and society. Reforming boardrooms will help a bit, but a faster solution would be to use the proceeds from selling the nationalised banks to establish a huge sovereign wealth fund to direct investment towards long-term priorities. Alongside this Labour needs to get serious about the environment again and our report proposes two solutions. First the next government should embed care for the local environment into our everyday lives by creating a national environment bank holiday. Second it should set a ten-year deadline for every home in the country to be energy efficient before it can be sold or let.

Finally, Labour needs to show it is ready to reset the clock on how public services are run. There needs to be a clear break from the control freakery and market mania of both new Labour and the coalition. So far, Labour's fightback against Lansley, Grayling and Gove has been so timid and incremental that even Westminster insiders struggle to explain the difference.

The hallmarks of Labour’s approach must be public spirit and democratic control. People should be able to control what happens to services they value, not just decide which one they will choose. And locally elected politicians should have power over all public services in their patch, something Labour is reluctant to accept when it comes to health and schools. Above all, Labour should row back on 20 years of the commercialisation of public service. The party should pledge that companies will no longer be allowed to run whole public services and say that non-profit and government bodies will be the default providers of most frontline services.

As the Labour Party’s policy forum prepares to meet in July to finalise its policy recommendations it should feel inspired to think big. Timid symbolic policies have not been working for the party of late, and there’s no reason to think that will change. By adopting the Fabian recommendations, or something like them, Labour will emerge with a popular and a radical manifesto, but one still bound by fiscal and economic reality. Labour can win the public’s imagination and trust with a truly transformative programme for power.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle