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.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era