Ed Miliband speaks at the Citizens UK event at Westminster Central Hall on May 4, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The polls remain deadlocked, but who's winning the battle of ideas?

Both Labour and the Tories can boast of moving the centre ground in their favour. But it is perhaps Ukip that has had the greatest influence. 

Elections determine who holds office but they only partly determine who holds power. The struggle for intellectual and political supremacy is waged over decades, not years. Truly successful leaders govern from beyond the grave by forcing their successors to retain their reforms. In recent British history, two prime ministers, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, have achieved this distinction. Both changed the political culture in ways that their opponents, even with triple-figure majorities, were unwilling or unable to reverse. The welfare state and the NHS established by Attlee survived successive Conservative prime ministers; not one of Thatcher’s privatisations was overturned by Labour. Asked at a dinner in Hampshire in 2002 what she considered to be her greatest achievement, the former Tory PM replied: “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

The challenge for today’s leaders is to similarly move the “Overton window” – the term used by political theorists to describe the range of policies that are acceptable to the public. Even before a vote has been cast, the winners and the losers in this task have been determined by the contents of the parties’ manifestos; the ideas included and those discarded.

In his statement on the day of Thatcher’s death in April 2013, Ed Miliband praised her for moving “the centre ground of British politics”. Like her, the Labour leader has argued that his party must seek not merely to hold power but to make its values and its ideas the “common sense of our age”.

There are, however, unambiguous limits to his ambition. Miliband has no interest in the reversal of Thatcher’s privatisations, the restoration of capital controls or a return to 1970s-style taxation. The ideas that were most discredited by Labour’s 18 years in opposition – such as unilateral nuclear disarmament, mass nationalisation and the repeal of the anti-trade union laws – have not been revived.

But Miliband can still claim credit for moving the centre leftwards since 2010. Measures such as a 50p tax rate and a mansion tax are no longer viewed as radical. The Labour leader’s emphasis on living standards has encouraged the Tories not to merely retain but to increase the minimum wage. It is doubtful that the coalition government would have banned exclusive zero-hours contracts or capped payday loan charges without his interventions on these subjects. The political consensus around the NHS is similarly a mark of the left’s success. No prominent Conservative dares to challenge the principle of a free health service and David Cameron has been forced to promise £8bn more in funding (albeit without saying where the money would come from). 

“In opposition, you move to the centre,” George Osborne is fond of remarking. “In government, you move the centre.” Despite the concessions described above, the Chancellor can declare victory on several fronts. That Labour’s manifesto opened with a page devoted to fiscal responsibility was a tribute to his relentless focus on the deficit. To appease the austerians, the opposition has pledged to reduce borrowing every year and to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament. Labour’s fiscal rules grant it the freedom to borrow for investment but Miliband, fearful of his party’s profligate reputation, has lacked the confidence to make an explicit case for doing so. Just as New Labour redistributed by stealth (a strategy that Miliband denounced), so it seems that he would invest by stealth.

Osborne has similarly succeeded in redefining the debate over welfare. With the exception of the bedroom tax (which many Tories privately concede was a mistake), Labour has not pledged to reverse any of the Chancellor’s social security cuts. It has promised to retain the £26,000 household benefit cap, the limit on total welfare spending and the means-testing of child benefit.

The party that has moved the Overton window the furthest, however, is Ukip. Without the rise of the Farageists, it is doubtful that Cameron would have promised an in/out EU referendum. Should the Conservative Party return to opposition, it would no longer be surprising if its new leader simply advocated withdrawal. Against the expectations of Nigel Farage, Miliband did not match the Tories’ referendum promise. Yet the Eurosceptic zeitgeist has forced him to promise a vote if any further powers are transferred (an event that he believes is unlikely). Labour has been inhibited from arguing for the “ever closer union”, without which many believe social democracy can be no longer be achieved at the national level.

Ukip is not the only cause of the shift rightwards in the immigration debate but it is one of the most important. All three of the main parties are now committed to imposing strict limits on migrants’ right to claim benefits (Nick Clegg has said he has “no problem” with the Tories’ proposed four-year waiting period) and to reducing the number of low-skilled arrivals. None dares to consider the amnesty for illegal immigrants proposed by the Lib Dems in 2010. Ideas such as introducing quotas for EU migrants and expelling foreign graduates were ultimately rejected by the Tories but that they have entered mainstream debate is change enough.

Just as no leader will be able to claim arithmetical victory after the election, no leader will be able to claim intellectual victory. The state is advancing in some areas as it retreats in others. Should this new era of hung politics endure, the UK may never again be led by figures in the mould of Attlee and Thatcher, those who enact a pure union of policy and philosophy. The true test for the next government will not be whether it retains office but whether it forces its opponents to change.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.