The challenges facing the left - and what can be done about them

The paradox of thrift, political inequality and the difficulties of conference season.

Twice this week, on consecutive nights, I have been invited to speak at events addressing the challenges facing the left. (This is an unusual density of speaking engagements. I think they get me in because I’m free, not because I’m any help.)

One was the launch of this excellent volume produced by Policy Network. The other was a branch meeting of Labour members in North London. The former focused on large-scale problems for “progressive” movements across Europe – the conundrum of why it is that what looked in 2008 like an obvious failure of globalised, free-market capitalism hasn’t massively benefited social democratic politics. The latter was much more interested in the question of whether Ed Miliband is going to be Prime Minister in 2015.

Neither gathering was optimistic and although the gloom was expressed in different ways, the themes were remarkably similar. At the risk of doing violence to long and nuanced conversations, I’m going to try to distil the common concerns into a few paragraphs.

The new political paradox of thrift

There is, on the left, a strong feeling that the macroeconomic argument that dominated the period immediately after the 2010 election was intellectually won and politically lost by the Keynesians. It is a source of dismay, verging on panic, that the pro-austerity side seems to be getting away with the stagnation of the past few years and is now poised to reap the benefits of dismal, uneven growth. Yes, of course there will be questions about living standards and who shares the proceeds of a flimsy recovery. But the reality is that George Osborne slipped the noose when his deficit and debt reduction targets where shredded and the economy was shrinking.

Labour always struggled to explain the economic paradox of thrift. Now they have their own political paradox to deal with – they are sure that austerity was the wrong policy and yet are being forced to devise a strategy resting on the implicit assumption that it is also unavoidable.

Pointing at inequality doesn’t steer voters to the left

There is a tendency in the Labour party to see the yawning gap between rich and poor, or rather between the very rich and the rest, as intrinsically vicious. That is a reasonable enough position. There is ample evidence that more equal societies are happier and healthier. But the mere fact of British inequality appears not to be as great a factor making people vote Labour as many had hoped (And not just because Labour presided over the unequal Noughties.)

What animates a sense of righteous indignation is the injustice of perceived unequal or undue reward – the fact that bankers continue to get their bonuses while ordinary workers’ wages are frozen, for example. But that isn’t quite the same as despising a social order where some people are much richer than others. Resentment of unfair reward can just as easily be politically mobilised by the right - in favour of benefit cuts, say, if the story told is that claimants haven’t done enough to earn their welfare cheques.

There is poverty in Britain that should be a source of collective national shame, yet the left is struggling to turn that into a galvanising political energy.  It doesn’t help that politics itself – or more accurately, politicians – are mistrusted. A social democratic party has twin challenges. First, it wants to persuade people that the collective good is served by a drastic and urgent reordering of the way wealth and opportunity are distributed. Second, it wants to persuade people that government is the right tool for doing it. Neither of those things are as obvious to many voters as Labour activists want them to be.

The classic old left proposition is that there are a few greedy rich people with far too much money who should be made to cough up to the taxman so he can hand out more to the rest. There is not much evidence in Britain that this is a reliable avenue to victory, but for want of a better idea it seems to be enjoying a quiet renaissance in the Labour ranks. (For a long and detailed study on different ways of expressing the egalitarian impulse and what might work in the context of UK politics, I recommend a forthcoming paper by Nick Pearce in the IPPR’s Juncture journal.)

There was in 2010 a significant number of people in the Labour party who hoped that Ed Miliband was the man who could articulate the moral case for addressing inequality with enough passion and urgency that Britain’s dormant social democrat conscience would be reawakened. The feeling among his most ardent supporters was that he could distil the essence of The Spirit Level into a political love potion for the nation to imbibe. From my encounters with Labour members I can say the reality has dawned that this won’t happen and that leaves many feeling desperately uninspired.

Miliband needs a good post-conference

It is traditional at this time of year to write that party leaders face a critical moment at their annual conferences and that they must deliver the speech of their lives. Those things are broadly true of Miliband’s current situation. But there is a caveat. No-one doubts that the Labour leader can pull of a good speech when he needs to. He did it last year. The Labour party in recent years has been good at circling wagons at its conference and refusing to give the media the civil war stories that hacks are chasing. The discipline frays but remains fairly solid. So it is easy to imagine Miliband getting through his Brighton jamboree with his position unharmed and quite possibly enhanced. The big day for him is the one after the conference. The most consistent complaint I hear from Labour members and MPs is that, even when the leadership find a good position on something, there is no follow-up.

There never seems to be a plan for ramming home the new line or presenting it in a way that captures the public imagination. Miliband’s positions can be mapped out on paper and, more often than not, they are sensible and shrewd. They are meticulously designed to address the concerns of target voters without alienating the Labour core. The problem comes in taking those positions off the page and building them into a political project in three dimensions. The challenge isn’t delivering a good speech, it is turning it into more than just another speech.

We know Ed Miliband is capable of pulling a good conference speech out of the bag. But what happens next?. Photo: Getty

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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle