Leader: Politics is shrinking at a time when grand vision is required

Miliband is running out of time to convince voters that he offers something better than the Tories' pessimism.

As the House of Commons rises for the summer recess, British politics remains hung. Labour’s opinion poll lead is softening and the party remains untrusted to manage the economy. Ed Miliband has exceeded the expectations of his detractors but the public does not yet view him as a future prime minister. More profoundly, the so-called social-democratic moment that many on the centre left predicted would emerge out of the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s has not materialised. Mr Miliband frequently invokes the spirit of 1945 and the achievements of the Attlee government but in a less collectivist and more sceptical age he is struggling to win voters round to his more egalitarian vision. The forces of globalisation preclude the development of a Thatcher-style, counter-hegemonic project in one country.

The Conservative Party continues to struggle in the north of England and Scotland – electoral wastelands for the party since its 1997 defeat – and among those groups that denied it outright victory last time round, most notably public-sector workers (just 23 per cent of whom would vote for the party) and ethnic minorities. While ostensibly focused on securing a majority, the Tories have tacitly resorted to a core vote strategy aimed at maximising the possibility of a hung parliament and a second term of coalition government.

To achieve overall victory, both of the main parties would need to defy recent history. In the case of Labour, no opposition has returned to power at the first attempt with an overall majority in more than 80 years. In the case of the Tories, no governing party has increased its share of the vote since 1974, or since 1955, if we discount those that had not served a full parliamentary term. But in an age of voter promiscuity, it remains conceivable that either Labour or the Conservatives could take a decisive advantage before May 2015.

If both parties are to stand a chance of doing so, they will need to eschew the politically tempting but electorally ruinous option of pandering to their bases. For Mr Cameron, confronted by an increasingly doctrinaire conservative movement and a right-wing English press that increasingly shows all the characteristics of Fox News in the US, this remains a permanent struggle. If the “loony left” consigned Labour to opposition in the 1980s, today it is the rabid right that threatens to inflict the same fate on the Tories.

Too many Conservatives persist in believing that a Randian brew of Europhobia, austerity economics and tax and welfare cuts will be enough to deliver them victory. But others in the party are beginning to think more imaginatively about how to expand support for the Tories in areas where voting Conservative has acquired a status similar to that of an eccentric hobby.

In a new collection of essays, Access All Areas, the new Conservative campaign group Renewal has outlined a series of practical measures aimed at winning over northern voters, ethnic minorities and low-income workers. Founded by David Skelton, a former deputy director of Policy Exchange, it calls for a significant increase in the minimum wage, stronger anti-monopoly laws, a mass housebuilding programme and an end to “overzealous rhetoric” against public-sector workers and trade unionists (whom Mr Skelton proposes should be offered free membership of the party). If embraced by the Conservative leadership, it is an agenda that could revive support for the Tories among groups that Labour has too often taken for granted.

Mr Cameron’s party holds just 20 of the 124 urban seats in the north and the Midlands, but Labour’s vote is even more regionally unbalanced. Outside London, it holds just ten out of a possible 197 seats in the south of England. Here, as elsewhere, Mr Miliband’s mantra of “credibility and difference” is the appropriate one. The party cannot hope to win a majority if it is viewed as fiscally profligate and tolerant of an everhigher social security bill, or if it fails to offer a compelling vision beyond austerity. Having pledged to match the Tories’ current spending limits and to impose a cap on “structural welfare spending”, Mr Miliband has taken significant steps towards meeting the first objective but Labour’s wider agenda remains inchoate.

Rather than seeking to convert voters to his abstract vision of “responsible capitalism”, as Mr Cameron tried and failed to do in the case of “the big society”, Mr Miliband should adopt a laser-like focus on the group he identified early on as “the squeezed middle” and promote policies to empower them. Having wisely left open the possibility of borrowing more to invest in capital projects, he must begin to outline how Labour would use this fiscal flexibility to stimulate growth and increase employment. The party must at all costs avoid the appearance of believing in deficit-financed spending for its own sake. A pledge to build a million houses over five years, the level required to meet present need, would give meaning to the rhetorical insistence that “there is an alternative” and outflank the Conservatives.

In the form of their vulgar attacks on benefit claimants and public-sector workers, the Tories no longer seek to disguise their strategy of divide and rule. But as the general election approaches, time is short for Mr Miliband to convince voters to resist the lure of pessimism.

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution