Show Hide image

Blairism now seems a spent force – the new battle is between Blue and Brown Labour

The tension is between the need to defend Labour’s legacy of public service investment and the impulse to imagine different methods of change.

Labour’s response to coalition policy sometimes reminds me of the old Jewish joke about two elderly diners in a restaurant: “The food here is terrible,” says one. “Yes,” the other agrees. “And such small portions!”

It isn’t always clear whether the opposition hates the ingredients of Tory reform – free schools, elected police commissioners, universal credit – or is just recoiling from the whole spectacle of government on a shoestring; is it the flavour of the dish that is the issue, or the meagre ration? Often it is both but the message is confused.

Britain is getting used to tight budgets. That doesn’t mean people are happy but they do seem grimly reconciled to the idea that politics, which used to be about favours bestowed from the Exchequer, is now about pain selectively inflicted.

National stoicism poses a threat to Ed Miliband, separate from the question of who is responsible for the scarcity in the first place. Many people still think the problem is that Labour spent all of the money but time and the accumulation of coalition blunders will see blame shift to incumbent parties. That won’t automatically ease pressure on the opposition.

Party kvetching

George Osborne may have failed to grow the economy but he has set the terms of debate for what constitutes responsible spending. Every time shadow ministers attack a benefit cut, for example, the Chancellor chalks it up as an item of unfunded expenditure in Ed Balls’s plans. Osborne wants Labour to digitself a budget “black hole” for him to attack at the next election.

Balls can see the danger and tries to impose as much fiscal discipline as he can without endorsing specific coalition measures. It is not an easy balance. Labour is neither acquiescing to austerity nor fighting hard against it. So what the opposition ends up doing is something those old Jewish diners at the restaurant would recognise as kvetching. That is the splendid Yiddish word for complaining about a burden in a way that seems also resigned to it as a curse of fate. Labour is grumbling about the food when it should be writing a different menu for a new restaurant.

That caution expresses an intellectual dilemma for Labour that runs deeper than its quandaries about fiscal policy. Miliband has to decide how good he thinks the state is at fixing society before he can reject (or accept) what the Tories are doing to public services. He doesn’t want to endorse the Conservative argument that centralised services designed in Whitehall can be part of the problem as much as the solution. But nor does he want to play up to the accusation that the only method Labour knows for solving problems is to spray them with other people’s money.

The Tories have the opposite problem. No one doubts their readiness to cut spending, only their motive. David Cameron’s “big society” – charities promoted as nimbler alternatives to state intervention – failed to persuade people that he wasn’t pursuing a vendetta against the public sector. Even many Tories dismissed it as a wheeze to modernise the party’s image.

Yet there are senior Labour figures who think Cameron’s bungling of the big society is a lucky escape. They feel a more credible Tory leader with a stronger grip on his MPs might have succeeded in depicting the Tories as the party of community activism, leaving Labour on the side of the faceless state.

That concern reflects the continuing influence of Blue Labour, the movement that enjoyed something like cult status in the first year of Miliband’s leadership. The group’s profile was forcibly downgraded after incautious comments by Maurice Glasman, one of its founding luminaries, on matters ranging from immigration to Miliband’s strategy (or apparent lack thereof). But the Blue Labour analysis – that the party has historically placed too much confidence in bureaucracy to improve people’s lives and that grass-roots organisation is the antidote to sterile Westminster politics – is still influential. It gets a receptive hearing, if not a whole-hearted endorsement, from Jon Cruddas, the head of Miliband’s policy review. Marc Stears, an old university friend who has helped Miliband develop his “one-nation Labour” thesis, is an alumnus of the Blue school.

Fiscally sustainable

The more sceptical view, held by MPs from across the party and some Miliband advisers, is that too much Blue-note busking by unworldly professors helps the Tories trash the principle of universal services funded by the state. Miliband is instinctively cautious on public-sector reform and not just for fear of souring trade-union relations. There are political dividends for Labour in promises of stability when the coalition offers rolling mayhem. Why, for instance, would the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, get bogged down in tricky questions of how to make the NHS more responsive to patients when he can just point at what the Tories are doing and cry: “Oh, the horror!”?

Meanwhile, Ed Balls is reluctant to concede the point that much of Gordon Brown’s spending in the New Labour years failed to achieve the desired social outcomes regardless of whether it was fiscally sustainable.

There is a caricature of Labour’s public-sector debate that pits the frugal, reforming idolators of Tony Blair against spendthrift, reactionary disciples of Brown. The distinction is increasingly meaningless. Orthodox Blairites are a rare and neutered breed and even they accept that Balls, for all that the Tories paint him as Brownism incarnate, is wedded to budget discipline.

The real tension is both subtler and more profound. It is between the need to defend Labour’s legacy of investment in public services and the impulse to imagine different ways of effecting social change. It is the dilemma of how to rehabilitate the abstract principle that government can be the citizen’s friend while also attacking the current government as a menace to society. It is the battle between Brown and Blue shades of Labour which remains unresolved, because Ed Miliband is personally steeped in both.

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

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.