Peter Mandelson delivers a speech at the Policy Network conference held in the Science Museum last week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The centre ground isn't where Peter Mandelson thinks it is

The claim that Labour has moved too far to the left is based on a misreading of public opinion. 

There has been no more vociferous critic of Labour's direction in recent years than Peter Mandelson. In an interview in the new issue of Progress, he repeats a familiar charge against Ed Miliband (albeit without mentioning him by name): that he has vacated the centre ground in pursuit of an imaginary left-wing majority. 

Those who don’t give their political loyalty automatically to left or right – whose votes, therefore, are up for grabs – are a greater segment of the electorate now than they were when New Labour was being created in the 1990s. Therefore, it is even more important now to win the centre-ground to win electoral victory. Just as it is essential still to win on leadership and the economy, and to demonstrate that we are a party of conscience and reform that will talk to people’s values and concerns, not simply keep driving an agenda of our own regardless of the electorate’s views. That is why I get frustrated sometimes when people argue now that the country has moved to the left, therefore if we are more unambiguously leftwing and raise our ideological vigour, we are more likely to win the next election. 

For "people", read Miliband and his supporters. 

It is an echo of the point made by Tony Blair in his article for the centenary edition of the New Statesman last year, in which he wrote: "The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly." Blair is likely to repeat this warning when he delivers the Philip Gould Lecture on 21 July to mark the 20th anniversary of his election as Labour leader. 

For the former PM and Mandelson, remaining in the centre ground means, among other things, refusing to support higher taxes on the rich, avoiding policies that could be attacked as "anti-business" and advocating increased use of the private sector in public services. Labour's leftwards trajectory is, they argue, one of the main reasons why it may struggle to win next year. 

The party has certainly moved to the left under Miliband, but it is wrong to suggest that it is now further from the centre. As I’ve noted before, if the Labour leader is a "socialist", so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (actually putting them well to the left of Labour leader). 

The insight that defines Miliband's project is less that the centre has moved leftwards since the financial crisis, but that it was further to the left to begin with. It was New Labour's failure to accurately reflect public opinion that led to the loss of five million votes between 1997 and 2010. Too often, for Blair and Mandelson (as for others), the "centre ground" simply means "policies that I support". 

While voters continue to lean right on issues such as immigration, the deficit and welfare, Labour's stances have reflected this. It has pledged to reduce low-skilled migration (and apologised for refusing to impose transitional controls) and has promised to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament. The only welfare cut that it has committed to reversing is the unpopular "bedroom tax". 

Labour needs to do more to improve its credibility as a government-in-waiting, to win back economic trust, and to attract voters with a vision of national renewal. But the suggestion that this can only be achieved on a Blairite policy platform remains devoid of evidence. 

 

See more:

Have we become more left-wing? (8 July 2014)

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.