David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Miliband halts Cameron's advance on the economy

The Labour leader won a rare victory on the Tories' strongest territory. 

The fallout from the Autumn Statement and the focus on the cuts the Tories would make means that Labour is feeling better about its position on the economy than it has done for months. Voter anxiety about the threat to public services, they believe, could turn the election in their favour. In a sign of this new confidence, Ed Miliband led on the issue (on which the Conservatives have long held the advantage) at the final PMQs of the year. Noting that it was the Office for Budget Responsibility that first drew attention to the fact that public spending would fall to its lowest level since the 1930s under George Osborne's plans, he quipped: "Why does he believe the OBR has joined the BBC in a conspiracy against the Conservative Party?" Having been criticised in the past by Labour MPs for dropping messages too quickly, Miliband is determined to keep pushing the "1930s" line. 

Cameron replied that in real-terms public spending would merely fall to the same level as in 2002-03, but Miliband had a neat riposte: "He's spent four years saying we spent too much. Now he's saying we spent too little." The PM later turned to the deficit and the fact that Labour's plans would allow greater borrowing than the Conservatives'. But Ed Balls's pledge to cut the deficit every year and the Tories' promise of £7bn of unfunded tax cuts means that Miliband is better-armed than in the past. As well as creating a sense of risk around public services, Labour is now able to point to the danger of another VAT rise: something Cameron notably refused to rule out today. The PM was able to turn the leaked Labour strategy document on immigration to his advantage, highlighting its reference to the Conservatives' 17-point lead on managing the economy. But Miliband remained unruffled. The Labour leader never quite landed a knock-out blow. Yet given that the ecnomy is traditionally the Tories' strongest suit, and today's positive employment and earnings figures, Miliband will be content with a points victory. 

The two men's closing exchange neatly framed the battle to come: Miliband charged the Tories with a plan not for "balancing the books" but for "slashing the state". Cameron declared: "They can't talk about the deficit because it's fallen, they can't talk about growth because it's rising, they can't talk about jobs because we're increasing them." Miliband's aim is to persuade voters that the threat to public services is too great to award the Tories another term in government. Cameron's is to persuade them that the threat to growth and jobs is too great to gamble on an untested opposition. The election will likely turn on which scenario voters fear more. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.