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On rail policy and more, Labour is leaving space to its left

Miliband has asked radical questions but the answers have been too cautious for some.

The Labour leader has asked radical questions but some have been disappointed with the answers.
Ed Miliband delivers a speech at the Policy Network Conference held in the Science Museum yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Labour's stance on rail, the subject of speculation for months, has now been resolved. As today's Guardian reports, it will allow a public sector comparator to bid for franchises as they expire (seven are up for renewal in the next parliament), but will not pledge to automatically return them to state control. This is in line with the approach outlined by Ed Balls on The Andrew Marr Show last weekend, when he said the public sector should be free to compete with private companies "on a level playing field" but ruled out an "ideological" commitment to state ownership in all cases.

Earlier this year, Andrew Adonis, the shadow infrastructure minister and former transport secretary, similarly told me: "I don’t use the language of renationalisation but of fair competition. My view is that the performance of East Coast [which was renationalised in 2009 after National Express defaulted on its contract] as a state company is sufficiently strong that it would stand a good chance of being able to win future franchises on a fair basis. And, of course, because it doesn’t have to pay dividends, it has a substantial financial advantage."

The party's stance will disappoint those unions and parliamentary candidates who have been pushing for it to commit to bringing expired franchises back into the public sector in a process of incremental renationalisation. They will point to opinion polls showing majority public support for a return to full state ownership and to the success of East Coast as evidence in favour of their position. But Labour, which Ed Miliband has always emphasised will take a "pragmatic" approch, has decided to act on a case-by-case basis (thus limiting the financial risk to the state).

The position is an example of what the Labour leader describes as balancing "radicalism" with "credibility" (a theme explored in my column this week). On this issue, as on others, he has adopted a stance to the left of the Tories, but to the right of the unions and some activists. He has, for instance, pledged to widen use of the living wage, but has ruled out making its payment compulsory, he has promised to end "exploitative" zero-hours contracts, while opposing a full ban, and has committed to reintroducing the 50p tax rate, while vowing not to go any higher.

As Labour resolves its final policy positions, space is more clearly emerging to its left. The Greens, for instance, have used today's rail story to remind voters that they are committed to full renationalisation. They also favour a statutory living wage and a ban on all zero-hour contracts. To the disappointment of the Tories, who have long hoped for the emergence of a "Ukip of the left", the Greens and others have largely proved ineffective at exploiting the territory to Miliband's left. But as the election approaches, it is worth asking how those voters who welcomed the radical questions he asked, but have been disappointed with the answers, will behave.