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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.