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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.