Ed Miliband. Photo: Getty
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The left must think big to win

Whatever happens in May, the only way forward for the centre-left is to raises it sights.

The mood of crisis that accompanied the global financial crash shows no sign of lifting seven years on. On the contrary, talk of a ‘lost decade’ has begun to seem more like a best-case scenario than a jeremiad. This is about much more than economic recovery and squeezed living standards. It is about the loss of purpose and self-confidence affecting societies that no longer feel sure of their capacity to change for the better. 
This sense of loss is reflected in the downbeat atmosphere of the general election campaign and a growing disaffection with conventional politics. If the country’s prospects were as rosy as the Conservatives now claim, they would already be contemplating a sizeable majority. But daily experience leaves voters profoundly sceptical that any of Britain’s deep structural problems have been addressed. Once again growth is driven by consumer debt and asset-price inflation instead of exports, rising real wages and new investment. The benefits, such as they are, have not fed through to the majority. Britain feels like it is stagnating, not recovering. 

This presents the left with its own challenge. In navigating the politics of hard times, it has always been difficult to contend with rising pessimism and the instinct to hunker down. This time many mainstream parties of the centre-left are also struggling to account for their own roles in building an economic system that has failed to deliver the promise of sustainable growth and social progress.  In many parts of continental Europe the established representatives of social democracy are no longer seen as credible agents of change and are losing ground to new populist movements of left and right. The collapse of Pasok in Greece is an extreme example of a wider trend.

In Britain, after thirteen years in power, Labour could list many achievements to its credit from the minimum wage to the reduction in child poverty. But the party could no longer claim either to have tamed global capitalism or ended boom and bust. An early decision was taken to leave the basic structure of the economy untouched and focus on distributing the proceeds of growth to achieve progressive social goals. Unfortunately, the capacities of government were insufficient to curb the widening power imbalances between the employee and employer and between the consumer and the global corporates.

Despite a willingness to promote social justice and a shift to a low carbon economy, public spending alone was unable to compensate for the maladies of an unregulated market. The state assumed expensive new liabilities as business retreated from its responsibilities to pay a living wage, provide workplace pensions and improve the national skills base. Yet even this heroic effort at redistribution failed to stop inequalities from widening and social mobility from collapsing. When a runaway market eventually crashed, the state was forced to pick up the bill for that as well. A crisis of the free market was thus transformed into a story about the folly of big government.

To restore its political fortunes, the mainstream left will have to do more than become better managers and enablers than the Conservatives. The promise of a more enlightened version of the status quo won’t work, either as an electoral strategy or as a programme for national recovery. The country’s problems are too big. Chief among them is the need to deal with the vast structural imbalances that led to the economic crisis and remain completely unresolved after five years of Conservative-led austerity. Creating a path for sustainable, long-term recovery means restoring balance between public and private, industry and finance, exports and imports, wage growth and consumer debt, North and South, the many and the few. Anything less than this would leave Britain treading water until the next crisis strikes.

Since markets are not self-correcting, and since the levers of public finance are much weaker today than they were in the Blair-Brown era, the only realistic route to reform involves grappling with the tough questions about the nature of British capitalism that New Labour shied away from in 1997. How can we reverse the financialisation of our economy? What should be done to make multinational companies and the super rich pay their fare share of tax? How do we replace a business culture based on short-term profit and financial engineering with one geared towards long-term success? What new forms of ownership and participation would help to spread wealth and democratise our economy? How do we restore the link between earnings and growth? What can be done to reduce inequalities between places and between generations?
Calls for radical change are often dismissed as idealistic, but recent experience would suggest that it is those still hoping to achieve better social outcomes within the existing economic settlement that are guilty of wishful thinking. The only practical strategy for change is one that envisages a significant alteration to the balance of wealth and power in society. Inevitably this means confronting the determined resistance of those who have profited most from an economic system that has failed the country. The centre-left needs to be strong enough to deal with the political consequences of standing up to these powerful vested interests because the alternative is one that leaves Britain locked in a cycle of crisis and stagnation. 

Strategies based on progressive minimalism and policy triangulation are now redundant. Retail politics still has its place, but the targeting of policy commitments at specific groups of voters will only convince if it illustrates a bigger reform project aimed at making Britain work in the interests of the majority. If it is intended to cover the absence of such a project, it will fail. In the absence of anything better, politics will become trapped between an inert centrism that says nothing much can change and a new populism (advanced in different ways by UKIP and the SNP) preaching false solutions based on a retreat behind national borders.
The only way forward for the centre-left is to raise its sights. This will remain true whatever happens on May 7. If a government of the centre-left assumes office, it is likely to do so with a hold on power that is fragile at first. It will only be able to build the momentum and legitimacy needed to strengthen its position by showing that it has the vision and the will to bring about deep and lasting change. If the centre-left loses, it will not restore it fortunes in opposition by becoming more conventional and cautious. Either way, realism will require radicalism.

Paul Hackett is director of the Smith Institute. David Clark is founder and editor of the blog site Shifting Grounds. The two organisations are working together to promote a new agenda for the British centre-left.


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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.