Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.