Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband defines his programme: big reforms, not big spending

What the Labour leader will tell his party's National Policy Forum today.

For Ed Miliband, his speech at Labour's National Policy Forum today is a chance to offer his clearest account yet of the intellectual course he has charted in the last four years. The central message of his address will be that Labour now stands for "big reforms, not big spending". This is both because only far-reaching structural changes to the economy will resolve the problems demonstrated by the financial crisis and the collapse in living standards, and because the deficit the party will inherit means the old answer of hiking public spending is no longer available. 

He will devote a significant section of the speech to outlining Labour's commitment to fiscal discipline, a subject on which some shadow cabinet members believe he has said too little. As he will remind delegates, Labour has pledged to "get the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next parliament" and "deliver a surplus on the current budget". "For all of the cuts, for all of the pain under this government, Britain still has a deficit to deal with and a debt to pay down," he will say. This is an important attempt to manage expectations and to remind NPF delegates (party activists and trade unions) that the generous spending settlements of the past will not be possible. As the experience of François Hollande demonstrates, centre-left governments can't afford to raise false hopes of an end to austerity. 

But the positive conclusion he will draw is that these fiscal constraints mean Labour has to be more, not less, radical in reforming the economy. It is, in a word, predistribution (one that unsurprisingly won't appear in his speech): seeking to achieve more equal outcomes before the government collects taxes and pays out benefits by rewiring the market itself. To this end, Miliband has promised to significantly increase the minimum wage, to end "exploitative" zero-hours contracts, to freeze energy prices, to cap rent increases, to devolve £30bn of funding to city regions (a dramatic break with Labour's centralising tendencies), to create two new "challenger" banks and to introduce worker representation on remuneration committees - radical proposals that do not cost government money. Another word for it, as a source close to Jon Cruddas told me is "Milibandism".

Ahead of Tony Blair's speech on Monday, to mark the 20th anniversary of his election as Labour leader, he will emphasise that he has "moved on from New Labour", but also that he is "not going back to Old Labour". A Labour spokesman told me: "This is not about looking back, this is an Ed Miliband model for 2015, it's not a 1997 model, it's not a 1975 model either."

Miliband will add: "Our programme for government is more radical and more ambitious in the change we seek, crafted for the age we are living in and the challenges we face. Moving on from a time when rising inequality was just a fact of life – or when we acted as if there is nothing we could do about markets that aren’t fair or aren’t working. Not seeing big spending as the answer. Not going back to make do and mend." 

Labour strategists are keen to contrast this rich agenda with what they regard as David Cameron's intellectual exhaustion. One told me: "They [the Tories] have run out of ideas, they have nothing left but a stale form of Thatcherism, which just wants to roll back the state in the hope of being able to offer tax cuts at some point." 

Miliband's bet is that his radical programme will resonate with an alienated electorate longing for answers to the living standards crisis. But Tories will urge caution, arguing that voters can't afford to "hand the keys back" to Labour ("the people who crashed the car") when the recovery remains fragile and the deficit is still high (Conservative strategists rightly regard the message that "the job is not done" as crucial to victory). Which of these two narratives best reflects the country's mood will determine the outcome in May 2015. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.