Out of the seminar and into suburbia
Ed Miliband has to start planning for what a Labour government in impecunious times would actually do
The cancer of discord is now rampant within the coalition. It eats away at ministers’ capacity to act; it erodes by inches public support. It is an obvious truth of politics that divided parties do not win elections. Yet parties, which are themselves broad coalitions, comprising politicians whose DNA is programmed for plotting and sniping, find unity an elusive quality.
David Cameron should not worry too much. The plots exposed against him over the summer have all the force of a damp halibut. His frenemy Boris Johnson had a good Olympics, but that does not mean he would be welcomed by cheering crowds as our new prime minister.
Far more damaging to the coalition are the schisms over policy. After two and a half years, Liberal Democrats have little to show their members, and much of which to be ashamed. The party faithful want retribution against the leaders who have brought about their electoral destruction. Their patsy ministers will want to mark out clear policy differences with their Tory overlords in the hope of being spared once the show trials start. They are pulling to the left.
Within the Conservative party, the right wing is bullish and resurgent, bolstered by the reshuffle. They are stretching to breaking point the manacles of soggy liberalism, pulling the coalition to the right. Thatcher’s sons and daughters are drawing up their list of demands: NHS privatisation, reductions in overseas aid, liberalisation of labour markets and lower taxes.
There is now a serious prospect that Ed Miliband will become prime minister in May 2015. There is no iron law that the pendulum will swing Labour’s way, but it is more than wishful thinking to imagine a Labour victory. The period after 2007 showed what happens when a Labour prime minister takes office without a strategy for government. Miliband must not repeat the error.
Neil Kinnock famously argued that Labour leaders need to get their betrayal in first. It was advice heeded by Tony Blair when he abolished Clause IV, Part IV, snuffing out any lingering expectations that Labour would nationalise Marks & Spencer. Miliband, on the other hand, has done little to manage the expectations of the Labour and trade union left who delivered him the leadership. This is a huge mistake. Pandering to lefties is never the route to a stable Labour government. The space between cheering the conference speech and crying ‘betrayal’ is the width of a cigarette paper. Once the revolution fails to materialise in the first months of a Miliband administration, the left will fall away like the autumn leaves.
Labour needs to answer a simple question: what is Labour for when there is no money to spend? Labour’s shadow teams have been commissioned to look for savings from their departmental budgets. Some, such as the defence and transport teams, have delivered imaginative ideas to make the necessary cuts.
But now there is a different commission: how to make lives a little better without spending more cash. Labour’s first years will not be marked by a shift in economic policy, nor by splurges in public spending. Like New Labour after 1997, ministers will be constrained by their predecessors’ spending limits. And like New Labour, Miliband’s ministers will need a programme of action to demonstrate how Labour’s values are different, and how Labour can make a practical difference. The early Blair period saw micro-policies such as the ban on handguns, and the lifting of the ban on unions at GCHQ; shifts in resources such as scrapping the assisted places scheme to deliver smaller class sizes; and major constitutional reforms such as those in Scotland, Wales and London, all delivered within public spending limits set by Ken Clarke.
Miliband’s ministers need to walk into their departments with a select but deliverable list of policies. Chris Mullin, the fabulously self-effacing former ‘minister for folding deckchairs’, became a minister of the crown with the goal of banning Leylandii hedges being grown over a specified height. I am advised he succeeded, after a titanic Whitehall struggle. It is easy to scoff. But most ex-ministers struggle to tell you what they personally achieved in office. Few can point to a policy which they personally authored, championed, piloted through parliament, and were present for at the birth.
There are some around Miliband who understand the difference between what works in an Oxford University politics seminar and what works on the doorsteps of England’s commuter towns and suburbs. Jon Cruddas knows that his policy review must deliver practical policies which make our lives better but which do not cost the earth, like the smoking ban.
In 1987, the much-missed Ben Pimlott edited a collection of Fabian essays on what Labour should do in the first 100 days. The Fabians, Progress, Compass, IPPR and the rest of the wonkiverse should dedicate themselves to working through the small, significant and sellable shifts, which ratchet our society towards opportunity for all. Smaller class sizes and shorter waiting lists are easy to explain in simple terms. ‘Predistribution’ is not even a word.
Conservatives, Ed Miliband, Labour, Liberal Democrats