The Labour leadership contenders address delegates at the Progress conference in London on 16 May, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Both Labour and the Tories are battling for control of the centre, but will this moment last?

Whoever succeeds Ed Miliband as Labour leader will pursue a more moderate strategy. 

If the Labour leadership candidates have found it easy to distance themselves from Ed Miliband’s approach, it is partly because they never believed in it from the start. None of the contenders (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall) endorsed him in 2010 and three preferred his brother. They always doubted that his left-aligned strategy would succeed in a quietly conservative England. The election result confirmed their view.

All of Miliband’s putative successors have positioned themselves to his right. Kendall has argued that the 50p income-tax rate should not be permanent. Cooper has called for the party to end its opposition to a 20 per cent corporation-tax rate. Even Burnham, the most left-leaning candidate, has rejected a mansion tax as “the politics of envy” and has criticised Miliband as insufficiently pro-business. All have said that the last Labour government should have run a Budget surplus before the financial crash.

Their positions reflect a shared analysis of the party’s worst election defeat since 1987. Labour is judged to have lost because it was not trusted to manage the public finances, it should have cared more about wealth creation (rather than merely wealth distribution) and it failed to appeal to Conservative voters. This consensus repels those on the left, such as the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, who argue that the party lost because it embraced austerity, fought on Tory territory by promising a “Budget Responsibility Lock” and pledged too little market intervention. “Rather than trying to change the party, they should change party,” one left-wing MP remarked of the candidates’ rightward trajectory.

Yet the nature of the defeat has made it harder for the left to define the terms of debate. Rather than merely losing votes to the SNP and the Greens, Labour lost votes to the Conservatives. There is no credible path back to power that does not involve converting Tory supporters in England. As data analysis first published by the New Statesman showed, simply to become the single largest party, Labour needs to win 51 seats from the Conservatives (up from 27 in 2010). A 6 per cent swing against the SNP would deliver gains of just two in Scotland. Only 16 seats would fall to Labour if it won every Green voter and retained all of its existing support. Some cite the “lazy Labour” thesis, which suggests that the party lost as a result of the failure of the 2.9 million who said they would vote for the party to turn out on the day. But a strategy premised on attracting them next time is freighted with risk. As one Labour source notes: “The problem with non-voters is, well, they tend not to vote.” To win, the party will need to attract the fair-minded moderates who swing between Labour and the Tories and who have decided every election since 1945.

It is because of this psephological reality that the next Labour leader will pursue a more centrist strategy than Miliband. This, it should be noted, is not the same as a centrist manifesto. A party can make a moderate pitch to the nation without significantly diluting its programme. David Cameron has masterfully smuggled through Thatcherite policies under the guise of One-Nation Conservatism. Labour’s 1997 manifesto included interventionist measures such as a minimum wage and a windfall tax on the privatised utilities. But the party did not allow such measures to define its election platform. Ben Bradshaw, who is standing for the deputy leadership, told me: “We don’t have mad politics or mad policies. We just had the wrong political strategy and the wrong messaging and the wrong approach.”

The greatest challenge for Burnham, the front-runner, may not be his (recently acquired) left-wing reputation but his ministerial past. The Tories will charge him with neglect of the NHS while health secretary (having refused to open a full public inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire scandal) and with neglect of the economy while chief secretary to the Treasury (despite presiding over a frugal Spending Review in 2007). At the PLP meeting on 18 May, Harriet Harman urged MPs to vote based on which candidate the public liked most, rather than which they did.

Others suggest identifying the contender who is most feared by the Tories (who presciently cheered when Ed Miliband was elected). The hope of Kendall’s supporters is that with Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis absent from the race, she will be embraced as a “clean skin” free from the toxic associations of the last Labour government. However, in view of the arithmetical Everest the next leader will face, some suggest a Machiavellian motive for Umunna and Jarvis standing aside. “Of course Dan backed Andy. It gives him five years to prepare,” one Labour source quipped. Whoever wins will begin by seeking to fight from the centre but if the strategy does not immediately bear fruit, the new leader will soon face demands to turn left (just as Tory equivalents did to turn right).

Still, after years of ideological divergence, Labour and the Tories have begun the new term fighting for ownership of the same political territory. David Cameron’s decision to devote his first speech since the election to the NHS was designed to underline his “One Nation” intent. George Osborne’s rhetorical focus is no longer the deficit but the “northern powerhouse”. Yet, once the post-election euphoria fades, and with the alibi of coalition government no longer available, they will struggle to resist demands for more red-blooded conservatism. With their opponents divided and ruled, however, the Tories can savour this Elysian moment. “In opposition, you move to the centre. In government, you move the centre,” runs one of Osborne’s favourite aphorisms. As he prepares to deliver yet another austerity Budget, it is a lesson that the Labour leadership candidates should heed.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.