The Labour campaign bus. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Leader: Political cross-dressing – how the Tories and Labour are fighting to cover faults

The party manifestos fight hard to cover up perceived weaknesses. Labour don't want to admit they'll borrow to invest; the Tories don't want to explain the welfare cuts.

The perception that Labour cannot be trusted to control the public finances has hardened into received wisdom. This might be unfair – Gordon Brown used to operate with considerable fiscal discipline and preach “prudence with a purpose” in the early years of the New Labour government – and it is largely a consequence of the aftermath of the financial crisis and the effectiveness of George Osborne’s rhetorical assault on Labour’s economic record. But it is a fact.

Distracted by a protracted and bitter leadership contest in 2010, Labour feebly allowed the Tory-led coalition to frame the fundamental economic argument as one of Labour profligacy v Tory competence. Fatuous and alarmist comparisons were made between Britain and Greece (which was trapped within the eurozone and, because it did not have an independent central bank, unable to use monetary policy to mitigate the effects of the downturn). While the Miliband brothers set about fighting each other, the Tories were winning over the British public to the view that Labour was to blame for the debt crisis afflicting the country.

It is this perception that Ed Miliband very belatedly attempted to address with his front-page manifesto promise of “fiscal responsibility”: that each of Labour’s policies would be fully funded and require no additional borrowing and that he would eliminate the deficit by 2020, notwithstanding another recession or economic crisis.

The trouble for Labour is that the public has very little trust in politicians’ promises or “vows”, which is why Nick Clegg is so loathed, why Labour has become so unpopular in Scotland, where the SNP styles itself as an anti-austerity party, and why Tony Blair has never been forgiven for the Iraq war.

Mr Miliband’s mission in politics is to reduce inequality and to use the tax system and structural reforms of the economy to close the gap between the richest and the rest of us. Polling shows that his crackdown on “non-doms” commands widespread public support even if it might not raise much revenue, as does a rise in the minimum wage. Yet it is a sign of Labour’s weakness that it has felt obligated to offset every policy in this vein with tough talk about cutting benefits and the deficit. Mr Miliband knows that his party is vulnerable to caricature as a group of old-school socialists.

By contrast, the Tories have been spraying around unfunded commitments as if they had been subject to a secret takeover by Scandinavians. Individual ministers may struggle to explain where the extra money pledged for the NHS will come from but Mr Osborne’s calculation is that his economic credibility is sufficiently strong that a little wooziness will be forgiven. In the Tory manifesto, however, the party has moved from the arena of unachievable promises to downright regressive ones. Inheritance tax is currently paid by 6 per cent of estates, so raising its upper limit will benefit only the wealthy. And while “Right to Buy” was popular in its first incarnation under Margaret Thatcher, it has had devastating consequences. The social housing stock was never replenished; it created a new rentier class (a third of Right to Buy homes are rented out) and the state now subsidises more working families to rent in the private sector, causing the housing benefit bill to swell. It is to Labour’s credit that it has pledged to tackle this crisis at its source – lack of supply – with a housebuilding programme. There is also a cap on rent increases and a mansion tax, a move towards the asset taxes for which we have long argued. Earned income for low and middle earners is taxed too heavily (as is consumption; VAT is a regressive tax) and unearned income and static assets too little.

If there is a lesson to take from the Tory and Labour manifestos, it is that both are intent on neutralising their perceived weaknesses. Labour will not admit that it would borrow to invest (a necessary flexibility, as all Keynesians would understand) nor set out where serious cuts would be, and the Tories will not explain how they intend to make £12bn of welfare cuts and more – their numbers are so absurd as to be almost beyond discussion. The war of the weak is ending with both parties trying desperately to feign strength.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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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.