Miliband’s problem isn’t having the wrong ‘look’

What, ultimately, will Labour be about in the coming years?

What, ultimately, will Labour be about in the coming years?

With his speech yesterday, David Cameron rhetorically knocked it out the park. The big tent vision stuff has often been his forte. The electoral effect of it is incalculable, but it is unlikely to be bad for the Conservatives.

In contrast, to avoid perceptions that their leader is ‘weird,’ Labour have begun crowbarring bacon sandwich references into everything. This is fast becoming almost worse than the original problem, and doesn’t look massively prime ministerial.

Crucially however, Miliband’s problem isn’t just not having the right ‘look’. Pretending it is remains both insulting to the electorate and emblematic of a generally blinkered approach. The greater problem is a perception of inauthenticity. This is more nebulous and can’t be fixed – such as anything can – by a few anecdotes about bothering park dwellers.

In part this inauthenticity arrives through a robotic form of opposition. Cameron has majorly fudged on the details regarding his proposed post 2015 tax cuts. But it’s harder to nail him on it if your new down-payment on a £96bn budget deficit is a few hundred million off child benefit and the winter fuel allowance. If Labour were going all out Keynes 2.0 instead then that would at least be logically consistent, but instead we’ve ended up with something of a mush. Ed has to some degree ended up neither ‘red’ nor having enough ‘cred.’

To be sure, oppositions must oppose where appropriate – that is their raison d’etre. But Labour’s position of describing every fiscal move by the coalition as the end of the world, unveiling something new of their own every three months or so, and hoping the electorate just hates Eton enough has experienced diminishing returns. Previous lines such as the ‘single’s tax’ criticism of Cameron’s marriage tax allowance or the ‘au pair subsidy’ rebuttal regarding free child care were always a bit iffy anyway.

But the pincer movement threatening to engulf Labour is twofold.

Firstly, from the ‘positive’ point of view, Labour’s big vision stuff is less attractive than they think it is. 200,000 new homes a year is a welcome improvement on the Coalition’s record, but it is still 50,000 short of what will keep up with projected population rises.

A mansion tax is also positive, but it is in a sense a sop to the wider need to tax wealth more aggressively (possibly in part to cut productive taxes on income/consumption). In any case, the Coalition’s mini-mansion tax (stamp duty on houses sold over the value of £2m) brought in £1bn last year, not so far removed from the £1.2bn Labour have tagged to their policy.

And, lastly, whilst 5,000 new care workers will help, it is still far short of the full merger of health and social care Andy Burnham has rightly been trumpeting. This is change, but is it transformational change?

But conversely, in other areas, they haven’t talked up the degree of sensible consensus that may exist. They haven’t, in other words, done the credibility stuff well enough.

The three most interesting interventions by Labour shadow ministers this parliament have been Rachel Reeves on restoring the contributory principle to welfare, Tristram Hunt on expanding the University Technical College model, and Hilary Benn on an ‘English Deal’ for local authorities to negotiate the devolution of powers from Westminster. These are areas where Labour can trumpet their adherence to a broad left-right conversation, and use this to gain more political space elsewhere.

This close to the election it may be too late to redress this. But at some point Miliband will have to take difficult decisions of his own. If the electorate perceive that he will duck them then he might as well pledge five million houses a year and free tickets to the moon.

As Sunny Hundal has pointed out, symbolism matters. If anything, I’d argue, to amplify the party’s stance on things like the bedroom tax some consensus elsewhere may go a long way. It is a paradoxical feature of modern politics, but the drawing of (artificial) red lines between the parties can actually entrench precisely the opposite effect – the perception that they are all the same.

And let’s look a little further. In twenty years time the ONS projects that there will proportionally be 2.5 per cent less people of working age than today. Less tax payers, more dependents. At some point the left will have to work out what to do about that.

It may be a smaller state in some areas, it may be tax rises in others. It may be a concerted shift from income to greater wealth and asset taxation (things the increasing amount of older people, after all, have). But it’s got to be something other than ‘don’t elect the evil Tories…although we’ll enact 90 per cent of their policies’. One or the other might work, but not both.

What, ultimately, will Labour be about in the coming years? This is a question as big as the debates of the 1950s – when Labour had to reckon with an electorate that was becoming increasingly more middle class than Labour’s traditional base. For a party of (income) tax and spend, what do you do when said receipts look set to dwindle? What happens to the state? These are huge questions I’m not sure Miliband’s conference focus on 2025 fully addressed.

Yes, the Tories have not kept all their election promises. The effect of some of their policies has been extremely damaging, particularly to the poor. They’ve spectacularly under-delivered on the deficit. Labour can and must highlight these.

But if that’s the only bar then Labour might as well pack it in. As the prime minister suggested yesterday, it may ultimately be Nigel Farage who ends up delivering office for Labour. But he remains in a very real sense a product of its various flaws. And that is far from ideal.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. He published the book One Nation Britain this summer

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