Labour won't turn left in response to the Green threat

Miliband will not mimic Cameron's approach to Ukip and change policy direction. 

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Until late last year, British politics was defined by the unity of the left and the division of the right. Conservative voters had defected to Ukip, while left-leaning Lib Dems had switched to Labour. This combination, it was often assumed, would deliver Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. But the surge of the SNP, the Greens and "Red Ukip" has dramatically altered the landscape. The result, as I write in my column this week, is that the Conservatives have moved into the lead. By merely standing still, they have claimed the advantage as the left has divided. 

The response from some within Labour has been to demand a change of direction. Earlier this week, as Syriza assumed power in Greece, 15 backbenchers signed a statement calling for the repudiation of austerity, the renationalisation of the railways and greater rights for trade unions. Others demand the abandonment of Trident and the introduction of a universal living wage.

But in conversations on the subject, Miliband's team make it clear that there will be no left turn. One strategist cited Cameron’s failed (and now abandoned) attempt to "out-Ukip Ukip" as a cautionary tale of the perils of fighting fringe parties on their own terms. Labour will not respond to the Greens by weakening its commitment to continued austerity, promising a compulsory living wage, or vowing to scrap Trident. In the case of the latter, one shadow cabinet minister told me: "Ed believes in it". While supportive of multilateral attempts to create a nuclear-free world, Miliband will not take the unilateralist path. A possible exception to this continuity is rail policy. I'm told that discussions are still taking place at senior levels about whether to toughen Labour’s current stance of allowing public-sector operators to bid for franchises as they expire. 

Miliband's focus, however, will be on emphasising the pre-existing radicalism of his programme (as I wrote last week, the ideological distance between the two parties is at its greatest since at least 1992). Many in the shadow cabinet argue that the party must work harder to sell its current policies: an £8 minimum wage, a cap on rent increases, increased housebuilding, a 10p tax rate and the biggest-ever programme of English devolution. 

But with almost no one hopeful of a majority (and some preparing for defeat), the battle for Labour's soul has already begun. The only question now is whether it continues in office or in opposition. 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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