Politicians of the left should be pondering whether the improvement in UK economic prospects means that Miliband’s chances of winning power have lessened, and if so, what should he do? In reality, the recent improvements in economic output exist alongside continuing decline in real incomes that are likely to continue for some time. Many, particularly those with high mortgages, are still benefiting from low interest rates; at some point in the future this will change. But up to now it is lower income households and the young that have suffered most and that will continue.
In fact, we have heard about the squeezed middle and one nation Labour but it isn’t very clear what that means. For a time the economic policy seem to be, cut a little less, but now it seems to be, stick with government targets. So I think that Miliband is a thoughtful and radical, if rather young and untried politician, who is trapped in a system that prevents him being distinctive and speaking about the big, longer-term questions that will shape and threaten our future.there is little reason to think life would change much at all with a Miliband government, or more likely, a Miliband-LibDem coalition. They may or may not win, but would it matter to most of us? I think that is Miliband’s major problem, there is very little love for the government but perhaps even less enthusiasm for the alternative.
And yet, there is a deep underlying disgruntlement with politics and a broad foreboding about the future. Why can’t Labour capitalise on this? It is partly the memories of New Labour, but my own view is that the modern techniques of politics – polling, focus groups, soundbites and positioning, make long-term policy and creative thinking impossible. Thus the political elite crowd onto the same, shrinking, safety-first, space and disconnect more and more from the rest of us.
I think that Miliband is a thoughtful and radical, if rather young and untried politician, who is trapped in a system that prevents him being distinctive and speaking about the big, longer-term questions that will shape and threaten our future. It would frighten too many (not least the Blairites that surround him) to set out a radical new agenda, so I would suggest firstly challenging the Government narrative on wasteful Labour spending. They obviously do not believe the banks should have been allowed to fail, so there should be an organised challenge – perhaps by putting back benchers to work- and call for a more grown up debate on fiscal adjustment. Then Miliband should put together a bunch of emblematic policy commitments that can be implemented quickly, and talk of the need for long term thinking to achieve significant change. At the same time he should encourage the development of such proposals from think tanks, friendly academics and political thinkers. It is worth remembering that the ideas underpinning the great achievements of the post war Labour government were prepared by Keynes, Beveridge and others but carried forward by a new government operating in very difficult circumstances.
What would I suggest? The issue that is causing most damage is growing inequality. Changes in benefits systems cannot be the answer. Blair/Brown brought in working family tax credits and ever-growing subsidies for escalating rents; but this drives up the welfare budget and does not reduce underlying inequality. Despite government rhetoric, the biggest growth of welfare spending has been on the working poor. Inequality, has grown massively since the 1970s, and puts us amongst the most unequal in the OECD; this creates an unhappy society and a huge welfare bill. I suggest more focus on this question, some exemplary policy commitments such as a call for support for the living wage, a focus on technical training for well-paid working class jobs plumbers, electricians, engineers etc, and a Royal Commission to develop a long-term plan for the reduction of inequality.
On Europe, we all know the Tories are in a fix because of UKIP and the instincts of their own right wing, but Labour is saying nothing distinctive, and arguing about an in/ out referendum gets us nowhere. But there is a problem with Europe and the Commission’s instinct to regulate everything and ignore the principle of subsidiarity. Surely the new issue that Miliband should pick up and run with that could generate a fresh and interesting debate, is a promise to work with the non-Euro members to thrash out a new relationship with the Euro area within the European Union. We need to retain the economic benefits of the single market but allow all countries much more subsidiarity. And I think it reasonable to look for a longer phase in period for free movement of labour for new members. I also strongly suggest a commitment to reform of the Geneva Convention on refugees so that control is taken out of the hands of people smugglers and deserving families are welcomed but others returned to UNHCR camps. The public have an instinct that the system is not fair but the answer is not cruelty to those who arrive.
On public sector reform, my own view is that new Labour managerialism and creeping commercialisation has deeply damaged pride in public service and morale and creativity in the workforce. What is not needed is yet more Secretary-of-State-led, short-term reorganisation. Again, we need to work for more long I really believe that there is a radical social democratic agenda, that would be popular, and that reflect the best of Labour’s historical values, but that the big problem is the impossibility of long-term thinking in the current political system. term consensus. If the Finnish school system is the most effective in the OECD, then we should study it and other systems more successful than ours, and then reach the largest possible consensus for a long-term process of reform. I believe our school system is now a test and exam passing system that delivers poor quality education. In the health service, targets and financial incentives prioritise too many pills, expensive scans and repeated movements of frail elderly in and out of acute care, that are uncontrollably expensive and do not create healthier people and better quality care. If we want less expense and more healthy people, we have to regulate the drinks and food industries, and again we need to build long-term consensus for a better quality healthcare system that we can afford. Miliband should look for emblematic commitments such as more focus on public health and less testing in schools and then promise not to engage in headline seeking, short term reform but to consult widely and reach the widest possible agreement on an agenda that all can unite around for long term affordable reform.
On foreign policy, I think there is a very broad view across society, that acting as a constant echo of the US, humiliates us and means we contribute little to the future safety and stability of the world. Imagine a UK that seeks to work with others for a new approach on Israel/Palestine that is built on respect international law and our Armed Forces participating in a revamped UN peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo that brings peace and stability to the region and helps restores the moral authority of the UN. The current world order is dangerous and the future increasingly worrying. The UK pretending that it is an important player but always following the errors of US policy is making no contribution at all to a safer future or creating pride in the UK contribution to international affairs. But Miliband would need to be cautious here and not promise too much too soon and upset the military industrial complex. He could promise more support for UN peacekeeping and to work to build a new coalition of the willing to work for peace and justice on Israel/Palestine, and once in power build on success.
We also need an independent review of Quantitative Easing. I believe it is simply propping up an overinflated financial sector that has lost all focus on using capital to invest in real things for the benefit of humanity. I would like to cancel QE and instead launch a one- off national programme–outside year-on-year fiscal policy–to invest in insulating our housing stock, in heat pumps, solar panels and other renewable energy that would generate jobs, deal with fuel poverty and make a much better contribution to reducing dangerous emissions. There are growing doubts about QE amongst financial commentators, but Labour cannot afford to spook the markets, Miliband could announce a big new effort on insulation, renewables and fuel poverty as part of the growing investment in infrastructure and talk of expanding the scope as QE reduces. Housing is another disaster area. Successive governments have encouraged house price inflation, so that too much capital is tied up in housing, many people are over-housed and yet we have shortages and outrageous rents inflating the welfare bill. I suggest that Miliband should commit to some short-term fixes like tax relief on low cost rentals and a promise to build more social housing, and then in power create a host of initiatives we need not just to build but to create incentives to release much more of the available, under occupied housing that people currently find the safest place for their savings.
In conclusion, I really believe that there is a radical social democratic agenda, that would be popular, and that reflect the best of Labour’s historical values, but that the big problem is the impossibility of long-term thinking in the current political system. Coalitions should make this easier but at the moment, all the parties are mesmerised by polling and the views of newspapers that fewer and fewer people read. This is, funnily enough Blair’s true legacy. A continuation of the present approach won’t get Labour elected or restore respect for the vocation of politics.