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

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.