Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Stuck on a burning platform – and with no money to give away – Labour is turning radical

In an age of fiscal famine, the tax and spend policies of the past are no longer an option.

When Conservative focus groups were asked before the last general election to select the picture that best represented Labour, they typically chose one of a lazy slob guzzling a beer while watching daytime TV. Four years later, the image persists. Lord Ashcroft’s new focus groups in Thurrock (Labour’s number two target seat) and Halifax found that this indolent character is still thought to epitomise the party. “Labour encourage that kind of behaviour. They make it too easy for people not to work and earn their money,” said one voter.

It is a charge that stings. The frequency with which shadow cabinet ministers assert that Labour is the “party of work” is testimony to how successful the Tories have been in branding it as the “party of welfare”. Ed Miliband’s own pollster James Morris told a Trades Union Congress meeting last year: “The challenge is very severe . . . if you look at politically salient target groups, those numbers get worse.” For those who celebrate Labour as the party of the Beveridge settlement, it is an unsettling reality. “If you’d said at the beginning of this parliament that the Tories would lead us on welfare, you would have been put in a straitjacket,” Labour’s former social security minister Frank Field told me.

Miliband’s speech on 19 June to mark IPPR’s Condition of Britain report was an attempt to turn this political supertanker around. He announced that Labour would abolish Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18-to-21-year-olds without Level 3 qualifications and replace it with a means-tested youth allowance conditional on recipients being in training. There would be winners from the policy: those who spend over 16 hours a week in further education would no longer be denied state support. There would also be losers. With the exception of some vulnerable groups, it would no longer be possible for school leavers to start their adult lives on benefits.

Labour strategists regarded Miliband’s address as an opportunity to change the conversation after a week defined by the fallout from his promotion of the Sun’s World Cup edition, Tony Blair’s bellicose pronouncements on the Middle East and ill-disguised tensions among shadow cabinet members. After Monday’s regular meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Harriet Harman was heard to berate Douglas Alexander over the lack of women in Labour’s inner circle.

In these moments of drift, anxiety spreads about the likely outcome in May 2015. One Labour MP told me this week that he expects the Conservatives to win a majority of 10-20 seats. Few in Westminster regard that as conceivable, but it is a sign of how pessimism has entered the party’s bloodstream.

IPPR’s Condition of Britain report, consciously modelled on its influential 1994 Commission on Social Justice, had been 18 months in the making. But rarely had Miliband needed its message of national renewal more. After nearly a year spent lamenting the “cost-of-living-crisis”, with what many fear are diminishing returns, the Labour leader has begun to shift gears.

Confronted by the prospect of another parliament of austerity, the party is becoming more, rather than less, radical. Labour's policy review co-ordinator, Jon Cruddas, cites the “Burning Platform” email sent to Nokia staff in 2011 by the company’s then chief executive, Stephen Elop. Elop wrote of a man who woke to find the oil platform he was sleeping on engulfed in flames. In desperation, he jumped 30 metres into the freezing waters below. After his rescue, he reflected how the fire had caused him to act in a way he never previously thought possible. Faced with the “burning platform” of a £107bn budget deficit, Labour, too, is changing.

In an age of fiscal famine, the tax and spend policies of the past are no longer an option. To deliver progressive reforms, the state itself will need to change. In the next month, Andrew Adonis’s growth review for the party and the final report of the Local Government Innovation Taskforce will propose the biggest devolution of power in England for more than a century. Miliband has already committed Labour to transferring £20bn of funding to local councils, but Cruddas’s outriders are hopeful the final figure will be closer to £70bn. Responsibility for housing benefit, transport infrastructure, the Work Programme, and apprenticeships and skills will be delegated entirely to city and county regions. When Leviathan’s coffers run dry, the one thing that Labour can afford to give away is power.

If Labour’s problem is that it is viewed as the party of welfare, the Tories’ is that they are viewed as the party of the wealthy. In his conversation with the Miliband strategist and Labour peer Stewart Wood at parliament this week, the pin-up economist Thomas Piketty noted that the coalition government had introduced a super-rate of stamp duty on properties worth more than £2m. It has also raised capital gains tax from 20 per cent to 28 per cent and retained a top rate of income tax higher than that seen for all but one of New Labour’s 156 months in office. But, like Gordon Brown, on those occasions when he has redistributed, George Osborne has done so by stealth. The Tories missed their chance for a “Clause IV moment” on inequality when David Cameron vetoed a mansion tax on the grounds that “our donors will never put up with it”.

Both Labour and the Tories present themselves as parties for “the many, not the few”. But the voters have never been less convinced. An ICM poll on 17 June put combined support for the two parties at just 63 per cent (32 per cent and 31 per cent) – the lowest recorded figure in ICM’s history. Unless one is able to break the deadlock, the danger is that the country, like a lazy slob on the sofa, will be condemned to drift and decline. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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The clever ideological trick that could save the Labour party

The Co-operative party could suddenly get a lot more popular. 

It’s do or die for the party’s moderate MPs, who have lost the fight for the soul of Labour and must quickly move on. 

The 172 Labour MPs who backed a no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year may not like their newly elected party leader much, but they loathe John McDonnell. 

So it is little surprise that one of them, John Woodcock, reportedly looked “sick to the stomach” when the Shadow Chancellor tenderly invited him for a cuppa in his office following the leadership election result at conference. Reading the tea leaves tells me those talks aren’t going to go well.  

Yet moderate MPs would do well to revisit McDonnell’s off-the-cuff comments from a few years back: “I’m not in the Labour party because I’m a believer of the Labour party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that,” he told a small audience in 2012. “It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that. If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.” 

Two feather-spitting former frontbenchers called for McDonnell’s resignation when these comments emerged in March, saying they revealed his Trotskyist tendencies. "The context (a hard-left gathering) and the company (which included Gerry Downing, expelled from Labour for his comments on 9/11) didn’t make for great publicity, no," a Leader’s Office staffer privately confesses. 

But McDonnell is right: There is nothing necessary, natural or divinely ordained about Labour’s existence lest it can get things done. Which is why the parliamentary Labour party cannot botch its next attempt at power. 

In the wake of Corbyn’s re-election, Labour MPs face a fork-in-the-road: fight this civil war until its bitter end - play the long game, wait until Labour loses the next general election and challenge Corbyn again - or start afresh. 

It is a bleak, binary choice, akin to a doctor delivering test results and declaring the illness is terminal as feared: the patient can go down fighting and die a slow death, notwithstanding a medical miracle, or instead take part in a pioneering new drug trial. This carries the risk of dying immediately but promises the possibility of life as well. Both options are fraught with danger.

The problem with the first option is that moderates have all but lost the party already. A poll reveals Corbyn won 85 per cent - 15 per cent among members who joined after he became party leader and lost 37 per cent - 63 per cent among those who were members of the party before the last general election. The result: victory by 119,000 votes. 

Corbyn has already announced he wants to give these foot soldiers far greater firepower and told Andrew Marr he had asked the NEC to draft plans for increasing the membership and including it in “all aspects of party decision making”. Labour is transitioning apace into a social movement: free of formal hierarchy and ambivalent about parliamentary power. 

So why wait until 2020? There is every chance that MPs won’t any longer have the power to challenge to Corbyn within four years’ time. If Momentum has its way with reselection and shadow cabinet elections, leading rebels may not be around to begin with. 

Even if MPs mount another leadership challenge, few believe organisations like Saving Labour or Labour First could put together a sizeable enough electorate to outgun Corbyn at the ballot box. He would be voted back in by a landslide. 

The alternative is for MPs to create a new centre-left force. The main plan under consideration is to join the Cooperative party, Labour’s sister party, and sit as a bloc of “double hatted” MPs, with their own policy agenda on Brexit and the economy. This new bloc would apply to the Speaker to become the official opposition. 

Plenty of MPs and members recoil at the idea of a semi-split like this because of the mixed message it would send to voters on the doorstep. "So you don’t have faith in Corbyn, but you’re a Co-op MP campaigning on behalf of his Labour?" Many believe a full-split would be worse. They fear being pitted against Corbyn-backed Labour candidates in local constituencies and splitting the left vote, opening the door to Ukip or the Conservatives in marginal seats. 

But if moderate MPs mean what they say when they warn of total electoral wipeout in 2020, risking a new centre-left grouping is intuitively worth it.  What do they have to lose? And how many more times can Labour’s moderates cry wolf - Labour "risks extinction", Sadiq Khan said yesterday - until voters call their bluff and tell them to quit complaining and fall in line behind their leader? 

While Corbyn’s polling remains disastrous, a Co-op/Labour party would boast a mandate of 9.3m people, a policy agenda in line with Britain’s political centre of gravity and a chance of becoming the official opposition: a risk worth taking in the face of electoral oblivion. 

A handful of battle-bruised MPs are talking about coming together. "Time to unite," a deflated Hilary Benn tweeted this weekend. There is a precedent for this: first past the post means the party has always been composed of uneasy coalitions of different groups - take the trade unionists, liberal cosmopolites and ethnic minorities of the New Labour years - and it is arguably no different now.  

Yet this is not about a coalition of diverse interests. It is about two parties within a party, each of which believes Labour is their rightful inheritance. Of the two, moderates are least likely to gain anything by engaging in an all out war. It is time they took a leaf out of McDonnell’s book and accepted it is time, regrettably, "to move on". 

Gabriel Pogrund is a journalist at The Sunday Times and a Google News Fellow 2016.