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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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