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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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era