George Osborne, Ed Miliband and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour needs to be more than just a repository for anger

Labour will not return to power if it seeks to win only the votes of those who are angry at the condition of modern Britain.

In our centenary issue of 12 April 2013, Tony Blair challenged the Labour Party to be “the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger”. “In the first case, we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion,” he wrote. “In the ­second case, we are simple fellow-travellers in sympathy; we are not leaders. And in these times, above all, people want leadership.”

Mr Blair has become an embarrassment to Labour, not least because of his misadventure in Iraq and his less-than-distinguished activities in retirement. Yet his insight that Labour could not prevail if it appeared to be merely an instrument for expressing discontent with the Conservatives, rather than a means to a bold transformation of British society, was proved painfully correct on 7 May. And this much is true: since Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister in 1976, Labour has had seven leaders but only Mr Blair has proved ­capable of winning a general election.

In a passionate essay also published in this week’s issue, the actor and activist Michael Sheen echoes Mr Blair when he writes, “The question of whether Labour moves back towards the centre, doing more to seem business-friendly or breaking away from the unions, is totally secondary to the fundamental question: ‘What do you believe in?’” To which he adds a second question: “How do you turn that into policy that can make concrete change?”

Despite his heavy defeat, Ed Miliband did a good job of answering the first question. He was rightly offended by deepening inequality and, in an age of globalisation, by the widening gap between the very rich and the rest – the pressing issue of our time. Whichever politician emerges to lead Labour should not abandon the fundamental insight that deep inequality corrodes the soul of a nation.

Mr Miliband failed, however, to provide an answer to the second question posed by Mr Sheen. Under his leadership, Labour’s policy solutions were quotidian and incremental. Rather than setting the mood of modern Britain, Labour fell victim to it. For the left, in particular, this is an era of easy anger. Political action all too often begins and ends with shouting at a computer screen. That old phrase – “The right seeks converts, the left seeks heretics” – is truer than it has ever been. Mr Miliband attempted to channel people’s anger, even going so far as to persuade Russell Brand to endorse Labour. But the idealism of the young proved an inadequate weapon against the caution of the old. Labour led the Conservatives by 16 points among first-time voters but trailed by 24 among the over-65s, who also voted in far greater numbers.

Labour will not return to power if it seeks to win only the votes of those who are angry at the condition of modern Britain. It must also win the support of those who are doing well – and, indeed, the support of those who live so precariously that talk of change feels like a threat, rather than a blessing.

On all but the rarest of occasions, no single party can achieve all it wants. Even movements of the left and centre left require compromise, with one another as well as with the country at large. This can only be achieved through collective endeavour and complex trade-offs. Understanding the cause of left-wing anger – but being more than a mere repository for it – will be the biggest task of whoever emerges as Ed Miliband’s successor from a protracted leadership campaign.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.