Ed Miliband during a speech on December 15, 2014 in Great Yarmouth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The divided left could cost Labour the election. Can Miliband recover?

As the party has shed votes to the SNP and the Greens, the Tories have emerged in front merely by standing still.

Oppositions, it is said, don’t win elections; governments lose them. In his 2011 Labour conference speech, Ed Miliband dismissed this axiom as “a consolation prize” for “leaders that have lost”. The danger for him is that he may soon join this unhappy club.

The recent run of polls showing the Tories ahead (their best performance since George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget in 2012) was not the result of any notable swing towards them. Rather, it reflected the drift away from Labour. As Miliband’s party has shed votes to the SNP, Ukip and the Greens, the Tories have emerged in front merely by standing still.

After failing to heal the divided right, David Cameron responded by seeking to create an equivalent fracture on the left. The plan worked. By gifting the Greens free publicity through his demand that they be included in any TV debates, the Prime Minister helped to ensure that they now regularly poll upwards of 7 per cent. That no Tory has asked the question of whether the Conservatives should be seeking to attract at least some of these voters themselves is a reminder of the shrunken ambition of the “natural party of government”.

For Labour, this trend is cause for both fear and hope. The fear is that, in a new era of six-party politics, the Tories could yet survive as the largest, even with a vote share below the 36 per cent they recorded in 2010. The resultant hope is that it requires only a modest recovery to win. It is easier, the logic runs, to squeeze recent insurgents than a government that voters have resolved to re-elect.

The rise of forces to Labour’s left at home and abroad has led to demands for it to colonise the territory that they occupy. On 26 January, as Syriza assumed power in Greece, 15 backbenchers signed a statement calling for the repudiation of austerity, the renationalisation of the railways and greater rights for trade unions. Others demand the abandonment of Trident and the introduction of a universal living wage.

To this, Labour strategists reply that there will be no left turn. They cite Cameron’s failed (and now abandoned) attempt to “out-Ukip Ukip” as a cautionary tale of the perils of fighting fringe parties on their own terms. Miliband’s team instead intends to emphasise the pre-existing radicalism of his programme and his personal commitment to combating inequality and climate change. A possible exception to this is rail policy. Discussion is taking place at senior levels about whether to toughen Labour’s current stance of allowing public-sector operators to bid for franchises as they expire. But no other concessions are foreseeable. In the case of Trident, a shadow cabinet minister told me: “Ed believes in it.” Miliband’s response to Syriza’s victory was to reaffirm his fiscal rectitude by pledging to “balance the books”.

Having devoted a full month to health policy, Labour is confident that it has achieved its ambition of putting the NHS “on the ballot paper”. Unlike in 2010, when the Conservatives succeeded in neutralising the issue, Cameron’s record in this area will receive sustained scrutiny. Labour is encouraged by polls showing that health is the issue of greatest importance to voters. For the Tories, the hope is that this will change as “winter pressures” fade and as a new eurozone crisis raises the salience of the economy.

Labour denies, however, that it intends to remain in what one critic described as a “health ghetto”. Now that it has published its ten-year plan for the NHS, its focus will move to the economy and the future of the young. A long-trailed pledge to reduce tuition fees, most likely from £9,000 to £6,000, will be unveiled in February. The policy is regarded as a vital means of retaining those who defected to the party from the Liberal Democrats and of winning back those who have migrated towards the Greens.

In the face of this novel threat to Labour’s left flank, fault lines are emerging over how to respond. The instinct of some is to deride the Greens as a crackpot outfit that would pursue negative growth, legalise membership of terrorist organisations and turn military bases into nature reserves. But others warn of the dangers of lapsing into the kind of attack politics that repels the idealistic young. They contend that instead the party should focus on burnishing its own appeal. The dirty work can be left to others. There is satisfaction within Labour ranks at the mauling that the Green leader, Natalie Bennett, received from Andrew Neil during a recent interview on the BBC’s Sunday Politics. “She’d be eaten alive in a TV debate,” one source surmised.

Should voters remain unenthused by their offers, the abiding hope of Labour and the Conservatives is that they will accept the remorseless logic of first-past-the-post and lend them their grudging support. In Scotland, Labour will accuse the SNP of creating the conditions for a Tory victory that it publicly suggests would be the worst of all outcomes. The challenge is making this case in a country where the parties are increasingly regarded as a common enemy.

In an unrestrained moment at last year’s Conservative conference, Cameron, channelling both Miliband and Tony Blair, told his party: “[If we] cannot defeat that complete shower of an opposition, we don’t deserve to be in politics.” Many in Labour regard their opponents with no less contempt. They have presided over the first parliament since the 1920s in which living standards will be lower at the end than at the beginning. They have missed every one of their original growth, debt and deficit targets. They have endured physical and intellectual defections to a right-wing splinter. Should Labour yet fall short, history will record the failure as its own alone

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle