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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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution