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Where does Labour go from here?

Karim Palant, Ed Balls' former head of policy, explains where Labour goes next.

So it was the economy - stupid - after all. The pessimists among us kept expecting our position in the polls to unravel. Like Lynton Crosby, we awaited the date when "crossover" would arrive. As weeks to polling day became days and hours, we began to hope that it might not happen.

But at the cruellest possible moment, just as I’d fully dosed up on the Kool-Aid, it did.  In the stunned silence of HQ, thoughts turned to those millions of pencils wavering over millions of ballot papers. At my desk by twenty to ten I had used the wait to draft an email of comments on the draft a Lib Dem coalition negotiating position. I paused over the send button, worried about tempting fate. My own wavering pencil. The email is still in “drafts”.

The debate about how we avoid a loss like that again will range widely - as it should. What some call political body language, tone and message frequency is a huge part of it. Political positioning is as much about what you choose to say often and what you choose to say only occasionally. The voters we need to reach may pay just a few minutes a year’s worth of attention to politics – around election time in the main.  They may know that we have a deficit, that people are worse off and that the combination is miserable. But may have heard somewhere that finally things are apparently looking up.

It is perfectly consistent to both want change yet also to worry that what positives there are might be put at risk by change: your job, your savings, your pension or your mortgage. An opposition needs people to feel that they don't pose any risk but do offer big enough change to make taking a chance worth it. It's like trying to make an omelette without the public thinking you're breaking any eggs.

That is why successful leaders of the opposition are so rare. Measured by winning a majority, as a thirty four year-old, there has been one in my lifetime. So for example, the public do feel that banks, energy companies, rail companies, supermarkets and letting agents rip them off.  That might make some feel that Labour’s route back into voters’ hearts is a version of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. But people are just as wary of a potential government that is too happy to make enemies. And making it crystal clear you really understand voters’ concerns on spending, on immigration and on welfare, rather than seeking to change the subject is the only route to regaining their trust - they won’t ignore those just because they agree with you about other things.

That is easier said than done. Debates about the past are one thing – and humility or showing that we have learned from our mistakes are important. But reassurance really means showing we have the strength to deliver a tough and responsible approach in the future. Our shadow cabinet and leadership do understand the policy challenge. Part of my job was to stop spending commitments. Shadow ministers weren’t battering at the door with a wish list of expensive promises. They get that the game has changed.

But an opposition gets limited moments to reach the public. We need to be willing to them to reassure and resist the urge communicate a sense of radical disruptive change without making it clear, limited, and concrete. We should also absorb the fact that we are talking fiscal discipline not only because the voters want us to but because it matters to the country and it matters to us.

Voters want a leader who will lie awake worrying about the fact that national debt as a share of our economy is forecast to still be 70 per cent in 2020. That is almost double the pre-crisis level and more than where it was forecast to peak - this year - when George Osborne came to office. This shows the scale of the failure of the wasted years of the last Parliament.

But this understanding alone is not enough to either sort out the public finances or to win the election. Labour can only win in 2020 by arguing that a progressive approach to fiscal responsibility means a combination not just of spending cuts or higher tax revenues, but balanced and sustained growth. It would not make any economic or political sense to seek to out-cut the Tories for whom reducing the size of the state is a raison-d’être. And as a party, we don’t believe most working people are comfortably off and can afford significant new tax rises - which limits the scope for raising revenue.

So, many have correctly concluded that we will not win the next election without growth, productivity, exports and innovation at the core of our approach. Talking about ways to deliver a step change in digital jobs, infrastructure, science, a green economy, a pro-growth tax framework for business and a regional revival are not nice-to-haves but essential parts of making Labour’s argument stack up.

We should not focus on growth or living standards because we want to avoid talking about the difficult bits – but precisely because it is core to our plan to deal with those difficult issues facing the country. A related conclusion that we cannot avoid is that to prosecute that argument you must truly value the private sector’s role in driving those things. 

These are key among the lessons we will need to learn for the next five years. And whoever wins will need to get serious, quickly. The consequence of not doing so will be millions more wavering pencils in 2020.

Karim Palant was head of policy to Ed Balls. 

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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories