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Miliband is sneaking up on power without a plan for government

The cosy one-nation revolution Miliband envisages could be a hollow mandate.

If there is such a thing as a good booing, Ed Miliband got one at an anti-austerity rally in London on 20 October. The leader of the opposition was heckled as he told the assembled crowd that a future Labour government would also need to cut budgets.

Jeers are never the soundtrack to a public relations triumph. At least the growls of dissent rebutted Conservative claims that Miliband went to the rally for some thumbsucking evasion of the financial challenge facing the country. Those Labour MPs who had feared that their leader’s appearance at the march would hand a propaganda victory to the government were relieved.

None of Miliband’s antics has intruded much on voters’ attention in recent weeks, since the government has been engaged in the peculiar practice of megaphone ineptitude – amplifying small mistakes into presentational disasters. It was, for example, quite a feat of media mismanagement to stretch an anecdote about the Tory chief whip being rude to a police officer into a month-long saga, culminating in a resignation.

Guitar hero

Miliband has had the freedom to work on his political stance like a wannabe rock star trying out stage moves in the privacy of his bedroom. His statements of intent to contain the deficit are the policy equivalent of air guitar – roughly the right position but not very revealing about what he would do if plugged into instruments of real power.

This leisure bestowed on the opposition is a source of Tory MPs’ fury with David Cameron and the No 10 machine. Most Conservatives are persuaded that a hint of encouraging economic news and a spell of competent administration would cause Labour’s opinion poll lead to shrivel. Many shadow ministers agree. A shudder of alarm passes through the party when official statistics on unemployment or growth hint that sunnier times are coming into view, albeit on a distant horizon.

Ed Balls will continue to argue that the coalition has delayed recovery and inflicted gratuitous pain. There is evidence that voters are sympathetic to that view. Growth, when it does return, is likely to be weak and its benefits will largely accrue to people already fairly well Ed Balls will continue to argue that the coalition has delayed recovery and inflicted gratuitous pain. There is evidence that voters are sympathetic to that view. Growth, when it does return, is likely to be weak and its benefits will largely accrue to people already fairly well off. The squeeze on living standards for those on middle incomes and below will endure. Labour MPs still want reassurance from Miliband and Balls that there is a “fair weather” strategy in case Tory claims to have saved the economy from mortal peril look plausible as an election nears. “If it turns out their policies are actually working, it puts us in some difficulty,” says one shadow minister.

A parallel anxiety is that the Labour leadership’s vague offer of austerity-lite masks a lack of willingness to think about ways to deliver public services on lower budgets. The opposition has to hold the coalition to account for its poorly targeted and hastily implemented cuts. Yet Labour must also beware of implicitly aligning itself with the view that the only problem with public services is their lack of funding.

Awkwardly for Miliband, the playbook of public-sector reform ideas, developed when his party was last in government, is branded with the colours of New Labour and Blairism, which are now deeply unfashionable in the party. There are shadow ministers who whisper that, as long as no great fuss is made, those ideas can be revived under a suitably Milibandite “one nation” banner – but only after an election.

Labour could campaign against the bits of the coalition programme that everyone hates, mainly the squeeze on the NHS, while discreetly acquiescing to more popular policies – welfare and education reform. Academy schools started out, after all, as Labour policy. “We can pretty much pick up where we left off in government,” says one pro-reform frontbencher.

Others are less sanguine. They fear that failure to signal reforming intent – pretending, for example, that the rationing of NHS services is proof of Tory malice towards the health service as if demographic and budget pressures were not also a factor – is dishonest. Voters will smell the deception. Labour could still scrape into power but then hit a wall of public revulsion as misty-eyed promises of change give way to more of the same. It is a scenario that one shadow minister describes as “Labour ending up as the Nick Cleggs of 2015”.

Senior Labour figures cite as a parable the steep fall in popularity of François Hollande since his victory in the French presidential election earlier this year. Hollande stood on an anti-austerity platform, cheered on in Miliband’s office. He is now suffering for want of public money to put where his campaigning mouth had been.

Miliband’s allies have a well-rehearsed response to accusations of deferring difficult decisions. There is a rhythm to a parliament, they say, and an optimal trajectory for opposition movements to rise as incumbent governments falter. In other words, now is not the time for the leader to be boxing himself into rigid policy positions. Holding back an account of what public services would look like under Labour is thus meant to preserve flexibility. It could achieve the opposite effect if it locks the party into defending a romantic vision of the public sector as just a Treasury cheque short of perfection.

Know your enemies

Serial Tory blunders have afforded Labour space to work out what kind of opposition it wants to be. As well as thanking his luck, Miliband should consider why this has happened. It must be tempting to think that Cameron just happens to be congenitally incompetent. Another explanation is that some of the disarray expresses how hard it is to govern in austerity and how easy it is to make powerful enemies of public servants – nurses, teachers, police officers – when taking their money, pensions and job security away.

Miliband imagines doing things differently. His plan involves promising epoch-defining change to the way society and the economy are structured without divisive talk of winners and losers – the cosy one-nation revolution. It is a feasible strategy for sneaking up on power but with a hollow mandate. If Miliband forms a government without permission to inflict pain or make enemies, he will quickly find Britain ungovernable.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.