Miliband can own the future in a way that Cameron can’t

by Jonathan Todd

The longer Gordon Brown was prime minister, the harder it became, sadly, to picture him in post at the 2012 Olympics. His purchase on the future evaporated. Ed Miliband has to recover this to return to government. He has to convince that he has the answers to the challenges of 2015 and beyond. And personify these answers.

While his speech to the resolution foundation looked towards this, the past is always knocking incessant, trying to break through into the present. As Jim Murphy told the progress political school, in politics, the past is always the context, the future the contest. The spectre of Iraq hangs over Libya. The fiscal management of the last government colours arguments about the approach of this. In many areas – NHS, schools, welfare and, increasingly, foreign affairs – David Cameron presents himself as more heir to Blair than a return to the 1980s. Labour begs to differ. The public is uncertain.

What is not in doubt, however, is that the past has to be overcome to own the future. The 1997 victory couldn’t happen until Labour had outrun the shadow of its discontented winter. Tory detoxification hadn’t removed the stench of Thatcherism before 2010. That foul odour now emanates from Number Ten, in spite of Cameron needing Nick Clegg’s help to limp over the finishing line of the general election.

Cameron has hired a head of strategy, Andrew Cooper, who was convinced of the need to detoxify the Tories before he was. Cooper is determined to now complete this long march. Only when this journey has ended, liberal Tories like Cooper think, will a Tory majority come. Mainstream Tories, such as Tim Montgomerie, less abashed by association with Thatcher, disagree.

Clegg now blocks the route that Cooper wants to pursue. It will be difficult to avoid the narrative that anything progressive done by the government is a consequence of the Lib Dems. These actions would serve only to prop up Clegg, not detoxify the Tories.

So long as Margaret Thatcher is held in such low regard in the northern seats that the Tories need to form a majority, mainstream Toryism cannot own the future. Equally, liberal Toryism is compromised by the Lib Dems claiming any of their victories as their own. Mainstream Tories and liberal Tories may battle for the soul of Cameron and their party, but these factors mean that neither is capable of owning the future.

It doesn’t have to be this way for Ed Miliband. But, first, we have to move beyond our past. Voters felt, as Fiona MacTaggart conceded at conference last year, that we were “taking their money and giving it to people who are taking the piss”. This is no prospectus upon which to form a government.

Labour canvassers rarely field complaints that we let the state get too big. This isn’t how people tend to conceptualise things. The Tory charge of profligate Labour spending still stings, though, because too many people feel Labour took too much of their squeezed wages in taxation, with too little improvement in public services to show for it, while being too generous with those unprepared to graft as they do (namely, some welfare recipients and, less fairly, immigrants).

James Purnell argues that Miliband can neuter the Conservatives’ attack that Labour is spendaholic by committing that no new Labour policy will involve additional spending. He claims that this would redefine the political battleground. Rather than being reform versus spending, it would be good reform versus bad reform. The story of the Cumbrian NHS exemplifies the virtues of Labour reform over Tory reform. Such arguments have to be taken on and won.

Labour reform enables more to be done for less, which is integral to being fluent on the deficit, as is a compelling plan for economic growth. However, the economic argument isn’t simply about fiscal management and growing GDP, but raising wages unchanged in real terms since 2005. The biggest long-term challenges that the country faces – earning our way in an Asian century, decarbonisation, ageing, banks both too big to fail and save – are all bound up with this most bread and butter of issues.

More immediate changes can help: tax incentives to encourage wider payment of the living wage and use of smart meters; more advocacy of the kind that saw consumer focus earn households a £70m rebate in the week before it was callously axed. However, the squeeze is intimately connected with the advance of globalisation and the failure of public policy to keep pace.

To be social democratic is to be condemned to optimism about capacity for improvement. Yet, as a country, we are far from having found the policies to grasp all the opportunities and meet all the challenges of an ever more Asian-powered globalisation.

Ed Miliband needs such policy, and ways to present it that are doorstep-ready. The big society wasn’t so ready and has become synonymous with small-state Thatcherism. It is now a rhetorical cul-de-sac for Cameron. Miliband cannot, however, own the future by default.

Only when his blank pages are filled with policy that escapes big government perceptions and paints a believable picture of a Britain at ease in the global age of today and tomorrow will he be able to own the future. This will take time and be no easy task. So long as we are privately advancing in these regards, the right public posture is enough for now.

Jonathan Todd is Uncut’s economic columnist.

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5 Responses to “Miliband can own the future in a way that Cameron can’t”

  1. Alex Sobel says:

    Very good piece and all very much in the realm of possibility.

    It’s all our duty to help Ed own the future, lets get involved in the policy review and feed these ideas through.

  2. Robert says:

    The thought of having labour back in so close to the mess they made, god no thanks not yet maybe in twenty years time, I’ll be dead then.

    Just to think Brown will still be around and labour might offer him a postion, or Mandy, or Blunkett, god no.

  3. Excellent piece and really interesting on the reasons why Cameron is in a bind. Thank you!

    However, whilst I don’t take issue with you on content, can I make a point about mood? It’s not just you; I can’t help feeling that too many Labour insiders are guilty of starting a lot of sentences about Labour’s future with the words “only when…” and then bemoaning the persistence of the party’s ghosts, forlornly lamenting the time required to heal. “Only when the past has been examined, understood, reconciled; only when apology has been issued and accepted; only when the contract between party and public has been redrafted and signed anew; only then will Labour come in, chastened, from the cold.”

    I’m not convinced that so much self-flagellation needs to be endured, that so much navel-gazing needs to be indulged in. I think that with some shows of bold and charismatic leadership, some indications of fresh and intelligent policymaking and above all an injection of energy and confidence, the party could reposition itself in short order. The requisite self-belief is not yet there, but it could easily come.

    Remember how quickly the Tories and LibDems got into bed with each other? They formed a legislative agenda and modus operandi in the space of a weekend. Labour can and should aspire to such agility.

    Managed properly, the public will not only not resist, but positively welcome the reinvigoration of Labour. Last May was not so much a turn towards Conservatism as a turn away from some specific Labour problems; the public wanted change, but not so much that it really preferred the alternatives on offer. Voters left it until the last minute to decide because the broad brush of what Labour stands for was, and is still, what the public wanted. (As you say, people didn’t go around saying Labour had allowed the state to get too big.)

    I admit it’s only a hunch (and my old politics tutors would kill me for talking about “the public” as if it were one sentient being) but I have a hunch that that public doesn’t want atonement from Labour. Last May, yes, it perhaps wanted to punish Labour. It was uncomfortable with Iraq. It was uncomfortable with Brown. It was uncomfortable with the deficit. But electoral defeat was the punishment, and it was instantaneous. Look how new members – and old – flocked to the party in the days after the election. The public can move on very swiftly. It does not want to see Labour in a protracted period of psychoanalysis. It wants a responsible, mature, vigorous Opposition. Capable, if need be, of running the country.

    The narrative on the economy must be sorted. In the interregnum of last year, Labour failed to prevent the Tories brandishing the party as profligate. That mud has stuck despite Ed Balls’ spirited start. I’m not convinced “matching spending plans” will still work as an electoral strategy or, even if it would work, whether it is the right one. But that’s for a more detailed discussion. (I do however think that Labour needs to recover ground with cleverer and more consistent use of language on all issues but particularly the economy. This is a perennial problem for the more subtle economics of the left. The right have this one easy; corner-shop speak is so much easier to sell. “Maxing out the credit cards,” etc.)

    But mostly my contention is that Labour will be ready when it decides to be ready. And I hope/pray/worry that the day when the future arrives, asking to be owned, could be more imminent than most insiders seem to imagine. The Coalition is not set in stone. Libya could change everything. The referendum could change everything. Another economic crisis could change everything. Not in 2015, but in months. Labour should prepare.

  4. I meant “branding” the party as profligate. Duh!

  5. Robert says:

    God I hope your wrong.

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