It's time for Ed Miliband to come back with a bang. Illustration: Nick Hayes
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Nine lessons for Miliband

What is the question to which “vote Labour” is the answer?
Ed Miliband has plenty to ponder over the summer. Labour is ahead in the opinion polls but not by enough to instil confidence of victory. MPs are mostly loyal to their leader but they feel his ship is becalmed. They fear the prospects of a majority will drift from view if something doesn’t change. But what? There is no shortage of advice, not all of it helpful, much of it contradictory. But from countless conversations with figures across the party, some common themes have emerged.
 

1. Tell a story

 
Behind the old cliché about politicians needing a “narrative” lies a deep psychological truth. People are emotional animals and their trust is won more easily with a story than with a statistic. David Cameron has a neat parable: once upon a time there was a wicked King Gordon. He borrowed lots of money and spent it all. Then a terrible storm wrecked the kingdom and there was no money to fix things. So the people deposed Gordon and installed King Dave to clear up the mess. That turned out to be harder than anyone expected, but the people were brave and they knew there was no going back to the bad old days.
 
What is Ed Miliband’s rival tale? His much-praised “one-nation” speech last October harked back to the 1945 Labour government as a fable of left solidarity, weaving in bits of Miliband’s own refugee heritage. He has an ideological account of a rotten economic model that colonised Britain under Margaret Thatcher and infiltrated the Labour Party under Tony Blair. But that is an ideological postulation, not a story. No one ever gripped an audience with the words “once there was a paradigm”.
 
Miliband needs to narrate modern Britain in a way that makes it sound obvious that the coalition are the bad guys and Labour the good guys – or at least the better guys. He needs to describe the past in a way that makes people nod along and want to put him in charge of the future.
 

2. Tell it with pictures

 
One of the most common complaints I hear from Labour MPs about the Miliband operation is that it fails to control images that shape public perception of the party and its leader. The two most senior communications people in the team – Bob Roberts and Tom Baldwin – both have newspaper backgrounds. Miliband’s closest advisers deal either in technical detail or abstract ideas. Miliband himself has an aversion to the kind of husky-hugging photo stunt that Cameron used to get his message across in the early days of opposition. Cameron employed his own photographer to maintain a steady flow of faux-intimate black-and-white shots of the candidate at work. By contrast, picture agency databases are full of unflattering angles of the Labour leader. He needs someone to be thinking harder about how his message is transmitted without words.
 

3. Sign up some capitalists

 
Miliband wants to reform British capitalism. He says it rewards the wrong people; it squeezes the many while indulging the wealthy few. It is a message that could resonate with people weighed down by the rising cost of living. The problem is that, historically, Labour has a prickly relationship with profit, markets and commerce, which makes it hard for the nuance in Miliband’s position to come across. He can talk about fairness but as soon as he says “capitalism” some people will see a career politician with no business experience giving vent to old lefty grudges.
 
Miliband wants Labour to be the party of small businesses and entrepreneurs – the little guys who feel the rules of the game are skewed to favour banks and huge corporations. To get that idea across he needs endorsement from the people he claims to be representing. He needs to be able to point at good (that is, profitable and ethical) companies and say, “This is what I’m talking about.” To have a credible agenda for remaking capitalism, he needs capitalists on stage with him.
 

4. Promote the innovators

 
Miliband has accepted that any government he leads would face severe budget constraints. That is only the first stage in a process aimed at convincing voters that Labour takes seriously the need to be careful with taxpayers’ money. The next challenge is explaining how Labour austerity would be so different from the coalition version.
 
The answer, Miliband’s allies say, is that Labour would have different priorities. Partly these will be expressed by shuffling money around between government departments – building new houses instead of spending on housing benefit, for example. Or funding childcare places instead of paying benefits to rich pensioners.
 
But those are marginal devices that don’t herald a transformation in the way Britain is governed. Labour has to take an interest in ways of delivering public goods outside the old Whitehall model. That means taking an interest in social enterprise, co-operatives and projects that give local communities more control over budgets. There are many Labour MPs and councillors already immersed in this kind of thinking but it won’t be recognised as central to the party’s philosophy until it is embraced by the leader. For now, Labour looks defensive and nostalgic, hoping to preserve as much of the existing apparatus as possible without spending more money doing so. Voters can see that doesn’t add up.
 
Instead, Miliband should find projects where energetic people are effecting social change in innovative and cost-efficient ways. He should point to them as signposts to a fairer future with balanced budgets.
 
Miliband should promote MPs and shadow ministers who can do the same. He needs to create the sense that Labour is brimming with imaginative ideas, eager to prove it can govern in austerity instead of cringing before the task.
 

5. Don’t lose control of the tax debate

 
George Osborne has said that if the Conservatives win the next election he would not raise any more taxes in his effort to contain the deficit. That implies billions of pounds in budget cuts – a squeeze tighter than the one being inflicted. It may not even be possible, but that doesn’t stop the Chancellor putting it in a manifesto and then attacking
 
Labour for planning a “middle-class tax raid” as part of its deficit-reduction plans. Sneaky, but effective. Labour has some prototype tax plans: restoring the 10p rate; a mansion tax; a levy on bankers’ bonuses. In revenue terms, that won’t cover the cost of reversing many coalition cuts or avoiding new ones. The Tories will declare a “black hole” in Labour’s plans, where there lurks a “tax bombshell”.
 
What Miliband needs is a device to shape the way taxes are discussed as part of the budget debate. He needs a memorable measure, a fair-tax rule of some kind, that will serve as a cultural counterpart to Osborne’s cap on welfare spending.
 
This could come in the form of a minimum tax threshold to prevent corporations from hiding their money from the exchequer. It could be a pledge to lock in a certain ratio of tax that the richest pay compared to the middle and the poorest. Whatever it is, Miliband should be able to declare that, under Labour, the boss could never end up paying less tax than the office cleaner – and challenge Cameron to match that vow.
 

6. Recognise the anger on both sides of the welfare debate

 
The easiest mistake a party can make in opposition is blaming something other than itself for election defeats and lost arguments. For Labour, that hazard is enhanced by a tendency to assume a monopoly on righteous indignation.
 
According to this view, Tory ministers who say they are motivated by the impulse to help the poor must be stupid or lying and if they appear to be winning the argument over, say, benefit cuts, it must be because the truth has been obscured by spin and biased reporting. By extension, Conservative voters are selfish or deluded. That attitude guarantees a long stint in opposition.
 
Yes, George Osborne’s anti-welfare agenda has been advanced with selective statistics and unrepresentative anecdotes. It is cynical but that isn’t why it works. Tory welfare policy is popular because it strikes a chord with voters who feel the system makes mugs of working people. They labour for meagre wages, paying their rent out of their own pockets, and then in effect pay their workless neighbours’ rent too.
 
Miliband has understood that this is a problem in terms of raw opinion poll data and shifted Labour’s position accordingly. He has accepted the need for some kind of cap on social security spending. He talks about restoring the link between effort put in and reward taken out of the system. He also passionately, and rightly, rejects the vicious caricature of benefit claimants as an army of scrounging layabouts.
 
What Miliband hasn’t yet done is sound authentically convinced that public frustration with the benefits system is justified. Until he can do that, he won’t get any credit for his more humane approach. People are attracted to Tory welfare policy not because they are mean-spirited or brainwashed but because it speaks to sincere feelings of outrage.
 

7. U-turn on Europe with style

 
It is getting harder to find Labour MPs who like their leader’s current reluctance to promise a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Most doubt that the party can get through an election campaign in which David Cameron constantly berates Miliband for refusing to trust the people. So a U-turn looks likely.
 
When the time comes it is vital that Miliband pull it off with style. Voters are generally forgiving of changes in policy as long as they are candidly declared. The line should be that Labour remains worried that Cameron’s ambivalent attitude creates uncertainty that damages Britain’s economic interests. But the party has also listened to the people. So, in the interests of greater certainty, the best plan is to have the in/out referendum promptly. Bring it on!
 
If the car is going to end up pointing in a different direction, don’t put it through a clunky three-point manoeuvre. Make it a handbrake turn.
 

8. Get organised online

 
There is a jaundiced view of Miliband’s election as Labour leader that sees him as having been smuggled into the job by trade union bosses. Yet he also persuaded many ordinary members that he was the man to rejuvenate the party. Veteran activists report that there was something close to a buzz around Ed among younger members in their constituencies, generated in part by a smart online campaign run by Alex Smith, a young digital communications expert. That energy vanished once the leadership campaign was over and the party’s lumbering, steam-driven machinery cranked into gear. Smith left. Contact with the network of eager Ed-ites was lost.
 
There are now signs that Labour is getting organised online again. In April this year, the party signed up Matthew McGregor, a British social media expert who ran Barack Obama’s “rapid response unit” in the 2012 US presidential election. His main focus is co-ordinating attacks on the Conservatives. But Miliband also needs a digital strategy to shape his own image. Tory papers will wage a brutal personal campaign against him. His own ratings, lagging behind those of his party, are a problem. A web fightback can’t neutralise Fleet Street aggression but it can help define the Labour leader in terms he has chosen. His pitch is renewal and change. If that isn’t selling through the usual channels, it’s time to get viral.
 

9. Decide the question

 
The Conservatives want people to go to the polls in May 2015 with certain questions in their minds. Can Labour be trusted not to screw things up as it did last time? Does Ed Miliband look like a prime minister? Things are gradually getting better; why risk change? Labour needs to plant different questions. After all that pain, are we better off? Whose side are Cameron and Osborne really on?
 
The Tories will stoke fear of a Labour government. Miliband needs to conquer that fear and inspire people who doubt that it makes much difference who wins. This is a huge challenge when politics itself is in disrepute. What is the question to which voting Labour is the answer?

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

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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