John Harris

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Five ways Labour can fight back | John Harris

Ed Miliband must free Labour from the ‘what-would-you-cut’ narrative and start addressing the party’s basic predicament

Ed Miliband’s appearance on Thursday’s Today programme was no repeat of the snarl-up that happened last November, when John Humphrys skewered him over the precise identity of the squeezed middle. He emerged with scratches rather than wounds, but his encounter with Evan Davis still pointed up some worrying Labour weaknesses. They’re still prisoners of the what-would-you-cut narrative, and short on convincing answers; questions about his and the party’s essential purpose continue to draw unconvincing answers (enough stuff about “getting on” already – as one acquaintance said to me soon after: “On what? The bus? Norman Tebbit’s bike?”).

At the launch of Labour’s local election campaign not long afterwards, Miliband gave a good speech. As Allegra Stratton wrote last week, he now has three big themes he’s intent on hammering: the rising cost of living and its effects on even the supposedly affluent; the prospect of the next generation failing to do better than their parents’ (summed up in the slightly clunky idea of the “British promise”); and the importance of strong communities. All these need developing, and fast: moreover, it would be good to hear some of these themes being referenced by Labour frontbenchers.

But in terms of Labour’s basic predicament, that is only a small part of the picture. So, by way of starting a conversation, here are five pressing points:

1) The argument about the deficit has to begin with growth

Miliband came to this disappointingly late in his Today interview. It’s not only the nub of the “too far, too fast” case against the government, but the only way Labour can even start to break out of all those dead-ended exchanges about how many police/teachers/whatever they’d cut. The top line of any Labour person’s pitch on the public finances has to be the prospect of demand being so sucked out of the economy – and remember, for the 675th time, 95% of the cuts have yet to bite – that the government will imperil its own deficit-reducing raison d’etre. In other words, in terms of emphasis, Labour needs to revive the kind of arguments Ed Balls was making in last summer’s leadership campaign. The economy is stalling; people see it every day on gap-toothed high streets, and in empty situations-vacant columns, and it is more than likely to get worse. This, not specious arguments about how many public employees should be made redundant, is where the most urgent debate ought to be.

2) It’s also about what we value

Again, this was there in the Today interview, but not put as boldly as it should have been – though there was better stuff in the launch speech. The government’s monomania about cuts threatens aspects of society that are precious not on account of political theory, but their central place in millions and millions of lives. This argument will take you straight to the heart of the real middle England, as opposed to the fantastical metropolitan version (where the whole of the south of England looks like Weybridge and anyone halfway successful leaves the public sector well alone), believed by far too many Labour people. It’s a quote I’ve used a lot, but try this very prescient thought, written by the academic Ross McKibbin in 1999: “[Labour] would do well to reject the view that the public sector is in some way a proletarian thing, something Middle England does not like. If anything, the reverse is true. The middle classes make more use of the NHS, public transport, public libraries, local swimming pools, public parks and their right to state welfare than anyone else.”

3) The coalition’s position on 50p tax is an open goal

Whenever a microphone is put in front of a Labour politician, one phrase should pass their lips within seconds: inequality of sacrifice. Forget the dried-up accusation that opening up a debate about all this is to somehow risk class war; it’s a simple, and very British, argument about fairness. Towards the end of his time in office, in one of his few acts of clear thinking, Gordon Brown saw all this coming, and in keeping with his religious belief in “dividing lines”, came up with the new top rate of tax, thereby putting Labour on the right side. Now, the government makes noises about its imminent demise. In the context of, say, news about the boss of Lloyd’s £21m bonus, this creates a no-brainer political opportunity, largely ignored because too many senior Labour people think a tax on 1% of incomes somehow worries the “aspirational”. It doesn’t: what incenses the majority of Britons is the spectacle of so many people getting away with murder (and note: contrary to all those squeals about 50p being a revenue-raising dud, it appears to work).

4) What’s your vision?

The period when it’s easy to condemn the coalition as hatchet-wielding brutes will eventually pass. There is some fascinating, creative thinking going on at the highest levels of government, and the Lib Dems have very little to do with it. Read senior Tory adviser Rohan Silva paying tribute to EF Schumacher in last Sunday’s Observer, or consider the implications of the localism bill: whether this stuff will make it through the Whitehall mincer, or survive the opposition of the Tories’ more unreconstructed elements, is a moot point – but it doesn’t detract from where it might lead: free-market economics with a newly human face, in essence. As things stand, the Labour party has woefully little by way of a response, apart from the vague idea that some of it may not work. This is not nearly good enough. What is the good society? How will people’s lives differ if it comes to pass? What has Labour got to say about the distribution of power, and control? In the conference speech Miliband made immediately after becoming leader, there were promising passages about the decline of our towns and cities, “life beyond the bottom line” and more. This needs developing: by 2014, it may well be where the action is.

5) Winning isn’t enough

Labour will do well in the local elections. Its poll rating isn’t bad at all. It was good to see all those people marching last Saturday, and a Labour leader addressing them. Things are about to get even grimmer, both economically and socially. But as Labour people are currently fond of reminding us, this is precisely what happened in the early 1980s. And remember how they turned out.

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