Ed Miliband speaking in the target seat of Thurrock last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Rex Features
Show Hide image

Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage