Inside “Next Labour”

Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband are not only spearheading Labour’s election campaign, but leading

It was, in many ways, a classic New Labour gathering: a minimalist north London drawing room, freshly squeezed orange juice and mineral water being served, fruit and HobNobs being eaten, and top of the agenda for a five-hour Sunday strategy meeting were the key manifesto messages for the election. Ideas were distributed, and those attending were expected to turn up with notes, not just on party policy but, inevitably, on the Conservatives as well.

There was one important difference between this and any equivalent meeting in election campaigns gone by: it was attended, indeed run, by a new generation of Labour power brokers. This is a generation looking to forge a new agenda for the new decade, not one wishing to frame the coming election as a bid for a "fourth term".

Hosting the meeting on Sunday 7 March was Ed Miliband, Labour's manifesto co-ordinator, whom many see as a future leader. Sitting beside him was his close friend Douglas Alexander, election campaign co-ordinator. In addition, there were advisers from their offices and the No 10 Policy Unit.

Miliband, who is 40, and Alexander, 42, are leading what you might call "Next Labour", a post-Blair, post-Brown generation of ambitious cabinet ministers who are determined not to give up power to the Tories. Though their formative political experiences were during the decade-long civil war between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, they are, in party terms, "postwar" politicians, desperate to move on.

While Brown concentrates on governing, Miliband and Alexander, along with the New Labour veteran Peter Mandelson, are carefully guiding Labour into campaign mode.

Miliband and Alexander first met 20 years ago in the kitchen of Ed's elder brother, David. Ed was an undergraduate, his brother worked for Blair and Alexander worked for Brown.

The bond between Alexander and the younger Miliband deepened on a holiday in Ireland in 2000, which they shared with James Purnell, another member of the Next Labour generation who surprised his peers last month by announcing he is to stand down as an MP. Since 2000, Miliband and Alexander have holidayed together in Scotland, France and the US.

In 1997, Alexander, then a practising lawyer in Scotland, took leave of absence to share the Treasury office in which Miliband was working as a special adviser; in 1999 they were both responsible for the Scottish Parliament election campaign that overturned the Scottish National Party's poll lead.

Despite his youthful appearance, Alexander is now an old hand at election campaigns. He insists, however, that this may be his toughest yet, and that he and his colleagues face "the fight of our lives" to retain office.

Comeback kids

Several cabinet ministers have long despaired of Brown in private; another recently told friends that he is happy to be sidelined so that he can avoid sharing the blame for defeat. Others on Labour's fringes argue in private that the party could use a period in opposition to renew. On a practical level, they believe that losing the next election would allow Labour to sidestep harsh spending decisions and the ill-feeling that would follow.

If some have given up the fight, Alexander and Miliband believe not only that Labour must fight hard to win, but that it can win. To make this happen, the pair are having to work long hours. Aside from a brief appearance with his father and son at the Emirates Stadium in north London to watch the recent Brazil-Ireland football friendly, Alexander accepts that, for the next couple of months at least, he will have very little spare time. "The Brazil game was the first night off I've had in as long as I can remember," he told me. "This is the second Sunday in a row that I'll see more of Ed [Miliband] than my wife and kids."

At 8.30 each morning he attends a strategy meeting, in his role as co-ordinator, with Peter Mandelson and Harriet Harman. With departmental as well as party duties - Alexander flew to Afghanistan after the 7 March meeting - the day then often runs into the early hours of the next. "We are still behind," he says, sitting in a café near Ed Miliband's house in north London. "But the momentum is with us."

As the New Statesman revealed last week, Labour's 2010 strategy was drawn up in December and submitted to the Prime Minister by Alexander two days before Christmas. The plan proposed the campaign strapline "A future fair for all" (this was accepted and became Labour's official slogan at a launch last month); it also outlined the main campaign themes and included a 150-page dossier on the cost of Conservative spending and tax policies, subsequently launched by Alistair Darling in early January.

In the event, this year's early sparring against the Tories has gone better than most within Labour could have hoped. Indeed, Alexander expresses genuine surprise at how unprepared the Tories have been. "'The same old Tories' is not a line - it's a truth," he says. "Change is a process, not a destination."

He shows me a file of past Conservative manifesto pledges that highlights similarities between policies then and today. "What we've seen of the Tories' draft manifesto suggests that they've changed the cover, but not the content. In 2005 they asked: 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' But they seem still to be thinking what they were thinking."

He adds, with a smile: "It's a bit like someone who puts an old pair of flares in the drawer for five years and then gets them out again to see
if they're fashionable." Alexander believes that the Tories are trapped by their own manifesto, which will show their policies to be in disharmony with the prevailing mood music.

Alexander and Miliband were among the first few members of cabinet to realise that David Cameron, far from being the "heir to Blair", had not changed or modernised his party. The document detailing the parallels between past and present Tory manifestos shows an alarming number of policies - such as the cap on immigration and pledges to cut inheritance tax - that differ little, if at all, from those promised in 2005 and 2001.

Can Labour win the campaign, given the disparity in funding between the two parties? (The Conservatives are thought to be planning to spend £18m - the legal maximum - during the four-week election campaign; Labour will have £8m at best.) The answer lies in how Labour deploys its resources. So while the Tories are spending heavily on more conventional forms of campaigning - such as posters and leaflets - Labour has been busy making direct contact with voters. "The figure is in excess of 100,000 face-to-face contacts every week," says a senior party insider. "That's roughly three times the level we were making at a similar point in 2005."

As Will Straw has noted on the Left Foot Forward blog, Professors Alan Gerber and Don Green of Yale University have shown that face-to-face contact has a far greater impact on voter turnout than either phone calls or mail. Leaflets increase turnout by 1.2 per cent; volunteer phone calls increase turnout by 3.8 per cent; and door-to-door canvassing increases turnout by between 7 and 11 per cent. "At the end of the day, it's people not posters that win elections," Alexander says.

The New Statesman has learned that the Tories are planning to launch another poster blitz, and have reserved billboard sites across the country. This, after they spent £500,000 on a poster campaign (the infamous "airbrushed" Cameron) that was widely ridiculed and traduced in the blogosphere.

On the ground, there is little sign of a concerted campaign of door-knocking by the Tories. Instead, unpersonalised leaflets are being distributed en masse, having first been vetted by Tory central command.

Explaining the dip in the polls for the Tories over the past few weeks, Alexander sees a link between old policies and old campaign techniques. "They haven't done the heavy lifting on their policies, and they haven't done the heavy lifting on their campaigning. And, in any campaign, if you haven't done the heavy lifting, it all starts to unravel."

Miliband or Miliband?

If, against all odds, Labour retains office, Alexander and Miliband will deserve much of the credit. But if Labour loses, neither may feature in the leadership contest that would follow. Alexander is not promoting himself as a future leader, while it is possible that Ed Miliband will not bring himself to challenge his elder brother, David, whom many party insiders expect to stand and win.

Miliband Sr will doubtless be challenged by Ed Balls, a Brown loyalist, but one whom critics see as a less collegiate member of the group. Balls's wife, Yvette Cooper, the 40-year-old Work and Pensions Secretary, recently tipped as potentially "Labour's first permanent woman leader" by Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, remains one to watch. Liam Byrne, the 39-year-old Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, 40, are also mentioned as outside contenders.

However, one key government insider says: "The next leader will be called Ed or Miliband. No, let me correct that. He will be called Miliband or Miliband."

The leadership question is for another day. But, one way or another, it looks as if power is shifting to the "Next Labour" generation.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

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The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.

***

Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.

***

What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.

***

Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt