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Douglas Alexander: “It’s time to take Boris seriously”

The former international development secretary on life for Labour beyond Blair Brown and the party’s prospects in an election against the Tories under Boris.

Douglas Alexander speaks in paragraphs and pauses in semicolons. He measures his thoughts into segments and lays them out in orderly rows. Even when the shadow foreign secretary doesn’t explicitly number his clauses one, two, three, his fluent deliberation projects mental bullet points. It is a sparse style that is widely respected across Westminster as the mark of intellectual rigour. He is the Labour frontbencher I have most often heard praised by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, only ever in private, for his precise political exegeses.

His seriousness can come across as gloomy but when we meet he is dressed more casually than usual, tieless in a grey V-neck sweater. He looks almost relaxed. So is Alexander cheered by Labour’s lead in the opinion polls as the party prepares for its annual conference?

“We’re still the underdogs of British politics but Ed Miliband is bringing us back,” he says. “That’s where we start this conference.”

Labour needs to hang on to that underdog status, I suggest, because the perception that Miliband is on course to be prime minister is inviting greater scrutiny of his programme. Many Labour MPs fret that a harsher media spotlight will expose the leadership as travelling light on policy – as unready for government. Does being the underdog help the party avoid that accusation?

“It’s just a recognition that we took a beating in 2010 and it was always going to be a tough road back. But if you look back over the last couple of years, we’ve come together, not come apart, and Ed has set a direction with his speech at conference last year on ‘responsible capitalism’.” Then the trademark Alexander bullet points: “Unity and direction – it’s not bad going for the first two years of a parliament.”

We are drinking coffee in the upmarket café in St James’s Park, where the staff wear starched white shirts and tourists wince at the price of a cappuccino. It is a routine venue for civil servants and MPs seeking refuge from sterile Whitehall meeting rooms and feels a long way from the front line of a failing economy: the squeeze on living standards, the joblessness and the vicious inequality that demand, in Ed Miliband’s opinion, a wholesale reconfiguration of the way Britain earns its living and shares its wealth.

The view here is different from Alexander’s Scottish constituency in Paisley: “We opened a food bank. It shames me that in the 21st century we’re opening food banks because people can’t afford the things they need at the local supermarket. But that’s the reality of the changes that are being witnessed.”

Dance to the rhythm

Naturally, Alexander puts much blame on the Tories (“They stand up for wrong people; they have the wrong values”). Yet he is careful to leaven the attack with recognition of deeper flaws in the way the economy has been organised since before David Cameron became Prime Minister. “If we try to blame the Conservatives for everything, the risk is that the public won’t believe us on anything.”

Wages have been stagnating since 2003 and the supply of secure jobs has been shrinking for a generation. The challenge, according to Alexander, is to engage the public in a “practical conversation” about how their government can equip people with the skills they need to find work and focus public services on the anxieties of a working-age population that increasingly supports two generations. That means nurseries for their children, decent elderly care for their parents.

It sounds like an account of Labour’s future spending priorities. The party leadership has acknowledged that, if it wins the next election, it will inherit grim fiscal constraints. There is no detail yet of which public services would be favoured and which would face cuts. Alexander defends that caution, citing the “rhythm of a parliament” that militates against an opposition offering premature policy announcements. But to emphasise Labour’s commitment to budgetary discipline, he highlights Ed Balls getting heckled when he delivered a message of spending restraint in a speech to the Trades Union Congress on 10 September. He also cites Miliband’s assertion in an NS interview (7 September) that it would be “crackers” to imagine that Labour could pick up where it left off in 2010. “Both Eds are speaking for all of us in saying that fiscal realism has to be the foundation of economic radicalism in the years ahead.”

Does that mean, in political terms, it isn’t such a bad thing for the shadow chancellor to be seen getting booed by a union crowd? “What’s important is that we have a shadow chancellor willing to level with audiences whether within the labour movement or beyond.”

For many on the left, that levelling sounds like a capitulation to the coalition’s austerity agenda and a betrayal of those most hurt by the cuts. Worse, it is depicted by union leaders as the symptom of a New Labour revanche – a rehabilitation of “discredited” Blairism that steers the party away from its noblest traditions.

At the feuding heart of the last government, Alexander, who rose up the ranks of cabinet and was international development secretary by the 2010 election, was associated with the Brownite camp. Afterwards, as a campaign manager for David Miliband’s failed leadership bid, he found himself cast (in the binary idiom of Labour tribalism) as a born-again Blairite. He rejects both titles.

“Those labels are pretty meaningless in today’s Labour Party. As a generation, we’re more interested in the future than the past. Building the future holds more attraction than ancestor worship, whichever ancestor we’re talking about.”

The generation he’s talking about is the cadre of current shadow ministers who had their political education under New Labour. They are determined to avoid a repetition of the personal schisms that poisoned that project.

Perhaps more important, they are a generation that still carries the deep scars of the 1992 general election defeat. Alexander worked on Neil Kinnock’s doomed campaign. He concedes that the trauma of losing to John Major provoked fear that an orthodox social-democratic economic programme was unpalatable to the British electorate and pushed the party towards an unhealthy deference to a particular kind of capitalism: “Blair, Brown, Mandelson and others felt the centre left took such a heavy defeat in 1992 that they embraced not just the private sector but ideas around globalisation and modernisation with a zeal and determination which, in retrospect, left them looking somewhat credulous about business.”

Redressing that balance is the aim behind the distinction that Miliband has drawn between “predatory” and “productive” kinds of commerce. There is a fine line for Labour to tread between highlighting the iniquities of a market economy (a tone the party finds easy to strike) and celebrating private enterprise as the engine for the realisation of popular aspiration (from which some in the party recoil, deeming it the motif of Thatcherism).

Miliband has claimed to be more at ease with the self-enriching spirit of the 1980s – at least in comparison to his father, Ralph, a Marxist theorist. “My dad was sceptical of all the Thatcher aspirational stuff,” Miliband told the Telegraph in a recent interview. “But I felt you sort of had to recognise that what she was talking about struck a chord.”

That sounds like the same acknowledgement that compelled Blair, Brown and Mandelson to embark on the journey away from “old” Labour. Alexander doesn’t disagree, but circumstances, he says, have changed. The implicit national promise of ever-rising living standards and growing wealth has been broken. “New Labour caught a mood and recognised widespread feelings in letting people look upward with ambition. Part of our challenge in the years ahead is to help those who are looking down with anxiety.”

It is by identifying that fundamental shift in the mood of the country that Miliband sees himself, in some respects, as a leader in the Thatcher mould: someone not initially thought of as prime ministerial but who detects an appetite for bold departure, for a new kind of economy – and who provides the ideological framework for effecting the change.

I wonder if that is plausible when opinion polls suggest a public image far removed from that of a forceful, dynamic leader. It is already clear that the Conservatives will mount personal attacks on those terms. Alexander is hopeful that voters, appreciating the scale of the crisis facing the country, will prefer a candidate who trades in big-picture solutions over one who sees politics as a beauty contest.

Blond ambition

“Ed believes deeply that ideas matter in politics,” he says, although he acknowledges that there is work to be done transmitting those ideas to a wider audience. “That’s why it’s important that Ed talks about the kind of country we want to build.” Cameron, by contrast, is portrayed as a man who took office overconfident in his entitlement to govern and who is now overwhelmed by events.

“Just because you’re born to rule, it doesn’t mean you’re very good at it. The fundamental difference between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, between Labour and Conservative, is that they want to run the country and we want to change the country.”

The optimism contained in that distinction is belied, I suggest, by the appeal of Boris Johnson, who appears to lack any distinct ideology but tops surveys of the nation’s favourite politicians. Alexander attributes some of that support to an Olympic afterglow but he doesn’t deny that the Mayor of London is a formi­dable opponent. “I think it’s time that we take Boris seriously.”

Tory MPs, according to Alexander, are palpably restless and craving more effective leadership. “It is not yet a probability but it is a possibility that [Boris] will lead the Conservative Party into the next general election.”

Johnson, I note, also has a proven record of poaching Labour voters in the capital. So, is he a serious threat? “He’s managed to put a smile on voters’ faces quite regularly. People feel he doesn’t play by the rules and doesn’t conform to type.” There is a pause as new bullet points are loaded. “In different ways, that’s also what Ed has done. He doesn’t conform to all of the past stereotypes people have had. There’s an authenticity there and I think that’s what voters ultimately want.”


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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special