John Harris

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Is Labour ready to turn the state upside down in 2015? | John Harris

Monday, May 13th, 2013

The party’s policy review suggests fundamental changes to the public sector – to square the circle of cuts and growth

Once again, the Labour party has tumbled into one of its periods of gloom and introspection. Labour being Labour, it feels more a matter of muted frustration and fatalism than anything particularly energised: we are almost certainly past any talk of leadership plots against Ed Miliband, at any rate. But there is now a widely shared script about the party’s problems, bound up with – among other things – the softness of its poll lead, its underwhelming showing in the local elections, and its ratings for economic competence.

Opinion polling and Kremlinology only tell us some of the story. Across Europe, centre-left politics is in crisis. Towards the end of last week, I had a look at the regular State of the Left bulletin sent out by the thinktank Policy Network, a dependably chilling read that gets more so every month. Only 11% of the French now have a positive view of François Hollande’s policies for growth. The Danish social democrats are on 16% in the polls, and the German SPD is stuck on less than 25%, the same share it managed in 2009. Five years after the short and somewhat delusional boost to the left’s morale that followed the crash, an iron rule of history seems to be asserting itself: that social democracy is something for the good times, and too dangerous a bet for an era as penurious as this one.

Here, the fact that Labour remain the favourite to win in 2015 might suggest a exception. But still: among uncomfortably large swaths of the public, there remains an ingrained – and, it has to be said, completely understandable – belief that Labour’s time in office was a period of profligacy and waste, and so it would prove again. Meanwhile, just to prove it, from the centre of Labour’s ideological continuum leftwards, there is currently an apparent belief that the party can somehow capture power in two years’ time, roll back the worst of the coalition’s cuts, dig out some old A-level notes about Keynesian demand management – and spend, spend, spend.

There are two answers to that. First, you’ll have an interesting job getting any such vision past the electorate. Second, even if you managed to do it, reality would then bite, agonisingly, and the fiscal predicament of the next UK government will be grim beyond words. In all likelihood, it will have to piece through the wreckage of George Osborne’s voodoo economics, fret about unendingly sluggish growth and the consequences for Britain of the seemingly endless euro crisis – and, just to make things really easy, cope with demographic changes (our rapidly ageing population, chiefly) that will make most political and economic orthodoxies completely untenable. In other words, the days when Gordon Brown could deliver budget speeches smattered with millions of this and unending billions of that are over, probably for the rest of most Labour politicians’ lives.

There is, then, a need for new thinking, and quick. Over the past month or so, I have been talking to a few people involved in the Labour policy review being led by Jon Cruddas, which seems to be pointing towards a three-part plan. Whether the leadership will buy in is unclear. The supposed realpolitik that underlies it is often hard to swallow, and many of its assumptions will cause people no end of annoyance, with good reason.But whereas most left responses to austerity are either fantastical or unrelentingly grim, this one has combination of realism and creativity.

The essentials go something like this. Though there will be no reversal of existing cuts, in the context of George Osborne’s howling failure that loud debate about whether to stick to his post-2015 spending plans is completely misplaced. But at the same time, if Labour is to win the next election, it will have to commit to a set of iron, independently enforced fiscal commitments, perhaps to be met over a 10-year cycle, focused not just on the elimination of the deficit, but the ratio of public debt to national income – many of the consequences of which, to quote one Labour insider, could be “brutal”.

Second, the party will need a clear-cut, demand-driven growth plan, based on a housebuilding blitz in particular. And how to square one with the other? The answer leads to the third part of the blueprint: a strong story about radically pruning central government, and pushing power downwards as never before.

I know, I know: this is the Fabianite, lever-pulling, subsidy-junkie Labour party we are talking about. But Cruddas is urging a “radical reconfiguration” of the state and public sector, and he is not joking. He talks about everything from the burden of epidemic mental illness on the prison system to the urgent need to finally tilt the NHS towards prevention rather than cure – and, in order to meet the aforementioned fiscal demands, insists that changes will have to happen fast.

As he has lately been pointing out, if four out of five jobs are brokered with no involvement from local job centres, what does that say about the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), a swollen and increasingly hateful institution that lately spawned the failed £5bn work programme? There should be cheers for this, and also the idea that Trident replacement – a cool £130bn over 30 years – is an absurd non-starter.

For every £19 of public money spent on housing benefit (total annual cost: £17bn), only £1 goes on the building of homes, and the bill continues to balloon; by much the same token, should we spend so much money on child benefit (about £12bn annually), or shift the focus to dependable childcare? Millions could be saved by timetabling a reduction of working tax credits, and cutting down the state’s grotesque subsiding of big companies’ wage bills.

Were Whitehall to call in and finally audit the huge private-sector contracts that now blanket the entire state, the savings could be towering (the total cost of the ruinous private finance initiative will top £300bn by 2049-50 – not an easy policy matter, though buyouts would suit the basic retrenchment-over-the-long-term agenda).

Woven into the proposals will be a kind of turbo-charged localism. In keeping Labour’s interest in such innovations as regional banks, the basic idea is to seize on a series of pilot projects known as Total Place, aimed at investigating whether pretty much the whole of public-service provision can be administered at an area level, whether focused on town, city or county. Again, the breaking-up of the DWP is relevant here. But so too is that British disease whereby far too many local or regional initiatives have to be signed off and shadowed by those two immense leviathans: the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Whirling through all this in a matter of paragraphs hardly does it justice. It requires painstaking work – and on that score, efforts are under way. Aside from the policy review, the Compass thinktank is preparing a high-profile intervention that will make the case for an deficit-driven stimulus alongside “eye-wateringly tight” fiscal rules and an audit of government waste. There are signs – particularly within work on social care – that at least some Labour people are grappling with the huge rethink required. If it materialises, it will be big news; if it doesn’t, the party may have no one but itself to blame for its problems – whether it wins the next election or not.

• This article was amended on 13 May 2013. The original said the State of the Left bulletin was put out by the Policy Exchange thinktank. It is produced by the centre-left thinktank Policy Network.

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If Boris Johnson is the answer to Ukip, Tories are asking the wrong question | John Harris

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Cameron and his A-list have alienated swaths of voters. Until they understand how, Ukip will be the beneficiary

Don’t panic: a nice bit of policy will sort Ukip out. Voices on the Tory right urges not one EU referendum but two. Those close to government emphasise moves on prison “perks”, and items in this week’s Queen’s speech that will deal with immigrants’ access to benefits and the NHS. Meanwhile, pundits and politicians from all sides claim that Nigel Farage’s grab-bag of proposals will fall apart under close scrutiny, and the menace will recede.

Well, maybe. Real politics is built on emotion and tribal affinity rather than policy – and on this score, Ukip excels. So full of chutzpah and mischief that he is talking about fantastical Ukip-Tory pacts, Farage knows the people for whom his party now speaks: English conservatives, with both a small and large “C”, disproportionately found in the south-eastern working class (quite an achievement for a son of a stockbroker, alumnus of Dulwich College and former banker, but there we are). If you think the country has lost its way thanks to a cosseted political class, that immigration and so-called welfare are at the heart of the problem, and that the Tories have little understanding of life as it actually lived, then you may well have voted Ukip as matter of visceral instinct.

Last week, I spent time with Ukip in Essex, where the party won nine council seats. At least half of them were ex-Tories, from decidedly non-posh backgrounds. I spoke to a few of their newly converted voters, too. At first, it was strange having so many conversations with people convinced that the Conservatives had lost their way, and sold out their old heartlands: what, I wondered, of the government’s unrelenting benefits crackdown, or their clear wish to shrink the state? But in such towns as Wickford, Billericay and Rayleigh, the disaffection of an entire social tribe runs much deeper than that.

The Conservatives have frayed their bond with what one pundit has called “Tebbit Tories” [paywall link], who look at David Cameron and George Osborne and see a grim cultural hybrid, which is alienating beyond words: public-school conceit mixed with the kind of metropolitan smarminess that Tony Blair and his disciples stretched to snapping point. Worse still, the new Tory elite’s distance from the nitty gritty is reflected in their lack of any kind of firm offer to so many of their own voters – what, you wonder, does the modern Conservative party think it can do for them?

There are plenty of occasions when the absurdity of the Tories’ predicament is revealed, though too few people seem to notice. When, for instance, Osborne recently popped up at a branch of Morrisons affecting a glottal stop and explaining the downsides of the benefits system (”Briddish people badly wannit fixed,” as one Telegraph writer translated it), did he have any idea how awful it looked, not least to the people he was gauchely trying to reach? Some of his and Cameron’s adversaries seem to know what the essential problem is: even if the Tories’ politics and economics remain essentially Thatcherite, given the backgrounds – if not the entire worldview – of the current leadership, the medium cancels out the message.

“We have to break this impression of being privileged and out of touch,” said that bona fide working-class Tory David Davis over the weekend, doubtless aware that a good way of showing how annoyed you are is to demand the impossible. He and his supporters presumably well know that even if Ukip is squeezed at the general election, all this will remain a huge issue: certainly, I know Westminster insiders who think it was an overlooked factor in the Tories’ inability to win in 2010.

If you appreciate the old political brilliance the Tories have so mislaid, you will understand why some view all this as a mounting tragedy. We are talking, let us not forget, about the party that wised up to the end of deference by collectively acknowledging that the era of grouse moors and patrician arrogance was drawing to a close, and placed millions of ordinary Britons at the heart of its most successful phase – partly thanks to the sale of council houses, the kind of populist masterstroke that the Cameroons can only dream about. If you read the best histories of the 1980s, it’s all there: in One of Us, the late Hugo Young quotes Norman Tebbit paying tribute to people “who want to own things, make choices, live decently”, and describes how the Thatcherites’ “patchy economic record” could always be trumped by “an attitude – the attitude Thatcher herself could trace directly back to Grantham”.

Where is that attitude now? A couple of cabinet members – Eric Pickles, and the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, a former coal miner – still personify it, but they are hardly at the heart of things. Similarly, there are traces of up-by-the-bootstraps grit on the Tory backbenches, although the silver-spooned beneficiaries of the infamous A-list have all but smothered them.

Those who still admire Cameron and his circle would argue that the red-raw Conservatism that Ukip now voice will only attract an insufficient share of an electorate becoming ever-more urban, liberal and socially diverse. To which the answer is: this argument is as much about style as substance, and the fact that if you want to bang on about hard work, aspiration and opportunity, it might be an idea to find people with experience of what they actually mean. In other words, even if some degree of “modernisation” was imperative, was it the wisest move to select a public-school clique to do it?

All this seems to be haunting the collective Tory soul, but note some other developments. Among Cameron’s recent moves has been the recruitment to policy roles of the Etonian MPs Jesse Norman (last heard putting the chumocracy down to his old school’s “commitment to public service”) and Jo Johnson. And even among those who recognise the Tory malaise, there is that incessant chorus claiming that the best way to cure the Tories’ ills is to hand the leadership to the latter’s big brother Boris.

That particular Old Etonian undoubtedly has assets Cameron and Osborne lack: apparent human warmth, the ability to give the appearance of straight-taking, a giant and Farage-ish personal brand, and – oh yes – an ability to win elections. He is securely stitched into the new establishment, while giving the impression he is some kind of out-there maverick. Farage and Ukip’s treasurer have been making appreciative noises about him; if the Tories’ difficulties worsen, the somewhat banal idea that he is the answer will presumably gain currency. If it does, I would gently prescribe a simple course of action: any tempted Conservatives should spend a few days outside London, understand the profundity of their problems, and give it a little bit more thought.

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Local elections results: panel verdict

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

As Ukip makes big gains in local elections across England, our panel discuss what this means for wider politics

Simon Jenkins: A protest vote has acquired backbone

There is no doubt of the victor. The UK Independence party is the new kid on the electoral block and looking good. The key statistic in the local elections is overall poll share. At the time of writing that is one quarter, and it is well distributed, double their performance in the opinion polls.

Ukip showed strongly from South Shields in the north to Hampshire in the south. It hurt everyone, shaving Labour, humiliating the Liberal Democrats as never before and leaving the Tories with heavy loss of blood.

The trouble for the Tories is that a customary mid-term protest vote has acquired backbone from three hardcore issues: immigration, Europe and gay marriage. It is hard to see how David Cameron can produce policies that will calm his worried party in the time available. If he were to try on immigration or Europe he could hardly hold his coalition together – though he might argue that no one wants an early election less than Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.

Splinter parties on the extremes rarely threaten entrenched parties in the long term. Core votes may defect for a while, but have no other place to go when the reason for defection diminishes. But politics is about the short term. Ukip is in a similar position to the Social Democratic party in 1981. It devastated Michael Foot’s Labour and helped keep it from office through three subsequent elections. It recovered only when completely recast – in the SDP’s image – by Tony Blair. That is the prospect now facing the Conservatives.

Jonathan Freedland: Ukip has cross-country appeal

Even before the day had begun, when votes had been counted for just seven of the 35 councils up for election, Ukip could claim to have won a great prize: the right to regard themselves as a challenge to every party, everywhere.

Consider this fact. Only one party managed to clear the 20% threshold in both the South Shields byelection last night and the parliamentary contest in Eastleigh in February. That was not Labour, which safely won in the former last night, after it had trailed in fourth in the latter. It certainly was not the Tories, who came third in both places. And it emphatically was not the Liberal Democrats who managed to retain Eastleigh, but won a miserable 352 votes – half those of the BNP – to come seventh in South Shields.

Only Ukip performed strongly in both these seats, one in the heart of traditionally Tory southern England, the other in a northern Labour stronghold – claiming nearly 28% in the first and 24% in the second.

To have such wide geographic appeal, taking on both government and opposition, is a feat rarely achieved by a third party, let alone a fourth.

It’s early in the day; we still await four-fifths of the council election results. And, yes, protest parties that do well in midterm or local elections usually fade come the general election that chooses a government. But this represents a huge step forward by Ukip, a protest party that, of course, threatens the Tories above all – but which now represents a challenge that will be felt in every corner of Westminster.

Polly Toynbee: Next year will be as good as it gets for the Faragistes

Didn’t Ukip do well? But the party had better relish the day and revel to the max. I’m going to take a risk and predict that this and probably next year’s Euro elections will be its peak, as good as it gets. There is no better time for a protest vote, nor have their been better reasons to protest in most people’s living memory. Living standards have dipped low and long, with not much hope in prospect. Immigration has always been the age-old issue that rises up when the low paid feel the pinch: blame the foreigners is the easy weapon to hand, when distant forces too great to grasp grind people down. Besides, there is some truth that the lowest paid have paid the price of immigration.

But come the general election things will turn less favourable for the Faragistes. The unforgiving logic of our first-past-the-post electoral system crushes incomers: I know, I’ve been there with the SDP, which at one stage hit 50% in the polls. Who governs the country matters more than who governs the county, sending people back to vote for their least worst likely winner. Besides, once Ukip is under real scrutiny – and attack from the Tory press – slashing tax while increasing defence spending by 40% is just one of its impossible policies that will puncture the lilo. What’s more, rightwing mavericks have form for falling apart once they arrive in council chambers.

Nonetheless, warning lights should flash. The Tories will turn reckless right, losing the last shreds of pretending to be nice. Labour will agonise: go right, say the Blairites, hug the middle way. Others will say the only way is bold: cautious establishment mush, double-speak and ambiguity only makes people despair of politics. They didn’t like Thatcher or her policies, but her clarity and determination won the day. We need not watch Ukip too closely, but watch what Ukip does to the only two contenders for 2015.

John Harris: Ukip can now weave itself into the social fabric

“An astounding performance of a historic scale,” says the psephologist John Curtice of the great Ukip surge, and he’s not wrong. Sixteen councillors in Lincolnshire, 10 in Hampshire, nine in Essex – and so the list will go on as results are announced through the day, and Tory headaches grow ever-more painful. Metropolitan political commentary pays too little attention to local government, and the upshot of these results is simple enough: Nigel Farage’s party now has the basis of an English national infrastructure, and a means by which its activists can be introduced to the grind of public office. Some, perhaps, will find it a shock. But for the next four years at least, Ukip can weave itself into the social fabric of scores of neighbourhoods.

Nice to see the Greens winning two seats in Essex, but the message sent out to the left by Ukip’s rise is sobering beyond words: after years of wondering what a crack in mainstream politics might look like, there comes a huge fissure – and the people responsible hail from the populist right. And what does it speak of? Anger and bafflement – “protest”, if you prefer – about immigration and so-called “welfare”, for sure. But also a profound cultural estrangement from Westminster, and an anodyne political class whose inadequacies were always going to spark public anger, not least in the midst of an economic crisis seemingly without end.

Such is the message for Labour from South Shields, though there obviously are even sharper signals from these results for the Conservative party. I was in Essex with Ukip on Wednesday, and among voters of a certain age, there was bafflement about the Tories’ modern public face, and a nostalgic yearning for the days of Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, and such past local MPs as Teddy Taylor and Teresa Gorman. The merits or demerits of what the government is up to are secondary: the people I spoke to see Cameron and Osborne as representatives of the same alien tribe as Tony Blair, and long for politicians who instinctively understand the nitty-gritty of their lives, and cannot quite understand why the Tories’ once rock-solid bond with the south-eastern working class has been so neglected. Similar questions, I would imagine, will be eating away at more clued-up Tories throughout the weekend, and beyond.

Simon Jenkins
Jonathan Freedland
John Harris
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