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Mehdi Hasan: Five questions that trouble Ed Miliband’s many disillusioned supporters

The questions the Labour leader can’t answer.

Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Forget the New Labour icons Tony Blair and Alan Milburn. Ignore the business bosses Stuart Rose and Stefano Pessina. If Ed Miliband isn’t prime minister after the general election in May, he has only one person to blame: himself.

The Labour leader, contrary to the lazy conventional wisdom, has the potential to be a good, even great, premier. He has, his friends say, a “Thatcher-esque” ambition to transform the British political and economic scene and has proved to be one of the most influential leaders of the opposition in living memory, forcing issues such as phone-hacking, the cost of living and Palestinian statehood on to the political agenda. If he wins on 7 May, he will walk through the door of No 10 with more high-level government experience – as a former cabinet minister and an ex-Treasury adviser – than Tony Blair and David Cameron combined when they entered Downing Street.

Yet it isn’t just his opponents who question whether Miliband will become prime minister. A growing number of his supporters do, too. Such is the right-wing reflex of much of our press that the only critique of the Labour leader which gets a hearing these days comes from either business bosses or Blairite ultras. There are, however, many centre-left MPs, peers and activists who backed Miliband’s insurgent leadership candidacy in the summer of 2010 but who now have their own issues with the Labour leader and his failures. They gather in the pubs and tearooms of Westminster to moan and groan about their man, more in sorrow than in anger.

Consider the following five questions that disillusioned “Ed-ites” often obsess over – and that Miliband has yet to address, in public or in private. First, why has a former television researcher – yes, Miliband worked briefly on Channel 4’s A Week in Politics in the early 1990s – failed to recognise how abjectly awful his performances on TV have been since 2010? Why hasn’t he taken urgent steps to improve them? In 2011 David Cameron hired Craig Oliver, a former editor of the BBC’s News at Ten, to be his director of communications. Miliband preferred to appoint three veteran lobby correspondents with zero experience in television, waiting until as late as September 2014 to recruit Matthew Laza, a former producer for the BBC of The One Show, to serve as his head of broadcasting.

Second, how did this son of Holocaust survivors allow his family’s compelling story to be ignored so easily, despite high-profile attacks from the Daily Mail and the pro-Israeli actress Maureen Lipman (who announced that she would be abandoning Labour until it was “led by mensches” – the Yiddish word for people of integrity)? How many are aware that Miliband publicly challenged a Sudanese diplomat over his “disgusting” comparison of efforts to fight climate change with the Holocaust in 2009? A video of him receiving a standing ovation from UN delegates sits unwatched on an obscure BBC News web page and unused by Labour Party spinners. (Google “‘Don’t wreck conference’ pleas Miliband [sic]” if you have three minutes to spare.)

Third, why is a former climate-change secretary who launched a “clean coal” policy, who debated against the climate sceptic Nigel Lawson and helped – in the words of the science writer Fred Pearce – “save” the Copenhagen summit in 2009 shedding voters to a resurgent Green Party? Forget “Red Ed”; whatever happened to “Green Ed”?

Fourth, why isn’t Miliband – whom the Daily Telegraph described in 2009 as one of the “saints” of the parliamentary expenses scandal – leading the assault on our sclerotic political establishment? Why has he ceded this fertile terrain to a former City trader named Nigel Farage, who once boasted he’d claimed up to £2m in expenses and allowances from the European Parliament?

Fifth, why has one of today’s few front-line Labour politicians who opposed the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq kept so quiet about his anti-war record? Why hasn’t he led the charge against the inexcusable delay in the publication of the Chilcot report? Labour is haemorrhaging voters to a range of anti-Iraq-war parties, from the Greens and the SNP to the Lib Dems. And yet, speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions on 21 January, Miliband remarked, almost as an aside, “Frankly, my views on the Iraq war are well known.” Sorry, Ed, they aren’t.

The public doesn’t have a clue that in early 2003 he phoned Gordon Brown – as I revealed on these pages in 2010 – from the US, where he was on a sabbatical at Harvard, to urge the then chancellor to resist Tony Blair’s march to war. (A former Downing Street aide told me how Brown “took Ed’s phone call very seriously but, ultimately, other views prevailed”.)

Yet on Iraq, as on MPs’ expenses, Miliband has taken a vow of silence. Why? To avoid, I’m told, embarrassing or provoking front-bench colleagues who did abuse their expenses and did cheerlead for the war in Iraq – despite Labour’s private polling showing how Miliband’s record on these issues is of huge appeal to floating voters. “The price of unity has been radicalism,” a friend of the Labour leader says. Another one told me that he “has to stop rewarding bad behaviour . . . He accommodates too much to others and isn’t forceful enough.”

Miliband is said privately to declaim that he is “strategically bold but tactically cautious”. The inescapable problem for this wannabe prime minister is that, day after day, caution wins out. The Labour leader cannot afford to be his own worst enemy, as he approaches the closest general election in a generation. Cravenness doesn’t win political battles. Courage does.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the NS and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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