For months, an internal battle has been taking place in Labour between those who want to go to the electorate with a radical plan to rewire British capitalism and those who want to “shrink the offer“, presenting a modest manifesto that limits the scope for Conservative attack. The new housing policy announced yesterday by Ed Miliband, to cap excessive rents, to make long-term tenancies the norm and to ban letting agent fees, is confirmation that the radicals are winning the argument.
When the ideas were first publicly floated by Sadiq Khan, a close ally of Miliband’s (he served as his campaign manager in 2010), in the Fabian pamphlet Our London last year, there was significant scepticism from some shadow cabinet members. But after months of debate, the policy now been embraced wholesale. One source described it as “a long old fight”, declaring that Khan had triumphed over “the forces of conservatism within”.
It is notable that whenever faced with a choice between caution and boldness, Miliband has opted for boldness. Before he pledged to scrap the bedroom tax, some in Labour, such as Ed Balls, resisted the announcement on the grounds that it would undermine Labour’s fiscal credibility. But the commitment was made (on the condition that it was paid for). Similarly, in the case of the energy price freeze, I am told that Balls and Chuka Umunna warned the policy would damage the party’s reputation among business. But Miliband overrode the sceptics and enjoyed his biggest political success to date.
That the Labour leader has taken the radical path championed by shadow cabinet left-wingers such as Owen Smith (who wrote in a piece for The Staggers earlier this year: “Some of those commentating on our party advise us to limit the Tories’ scope for attack by narrowing the political front on which we are engaged, to ‘shrink the offer’ as we approach the business end of this parliament. But those calls will be resisted and rejected, because they fail to understand the deep-rooted wish for change, for another way of doing things, that is so widely felt across our country.”) and Jon Trickett is because it is the one that chimes with his own values and beliefs. As the Fabians’ Marcus Roberts puts it on Labour List, Miliband yesterday displayed “the kind of surety that comes when a politician speaks with authenticity. Here was a strong progressive leader, a shameless social democrat unapologetically bashing the bankers and buy-to-let landlords who take blue collar Britons for a ride.”
If the past is a guide to the future, it is likely that Miliband will adopt similarly radical stances on the issues that remain unresolved: rail policy, tuition fees, childcare, and health and social care. A transformative offer would see Labour pledge to bring rail franchises back into public ownership as they expire (coupled with a freeze on fares to relieve pressure on commuters), to introduce free, universal childcare over the course of the next parliament, to cap tuition fees at £3,000 (below the mooted level of £6,000) and introduce a graduate tax, and to fully merge health and social care.
As Andy Burnham said of the latter in a recent interview with me: “How far do you go? Do you go for a very ambitious version of it, or an amalgamation of the existing budget? So great is the challenge that’s coming at the health- and social-care system, both in terms of the financial outlook and the demographic pressures, I would argue that you only rise to that with a solution of equal scale. Tinkering at the edges is not going to do it.”
Having won every major battle to date, Labour’s radicals are confident that Miliband will continue to seek to transform, not tinker.