No surprise, I was at the People’s Assembly march yesterday. I had my fair share of chanting, booing and rubbish far-left newspapers. Being rather near the front, I had a little chat with Caroline Lucas MP. I usually have a distaste for Greens: their ‘holier than thou’ and their ‘we’re the alternative’ narrative. However, talking about Ed Miliband’s plan to cut unskilled under 25s’ benefits, she mentioned the same thing that I’ve heard from a lot of people, even in Labour circles: ‘out-Torying the Tories’, ‘a race to the bottom’, ‘playing to the right-wing narrative’. After his fairly radical shift towards decent rent regulation and banning zero hour contracts before the European elections, this piece of wonkish policy seemed to be a great leap backwards.
Ignoring the fact that the policy is a) targeting some of the most vulnerable in society b) in direct clash with the Future Jobs Guarantee c) something the Tories would do, it is not worthy of a major policy announcement. It’s a policy written entirely in Whitehall wonk. It’s tinkering. Who can honestly get excited about wonk? How are we supposed to get out the vote when they give us rubbish like this? All it has done was to massively annoy the activist base.
The announcement was clearly trying to do two things. The first being the bane of the Labour party for a good 5 years: ‘economic credibility’. ‘Labour ruined the economy’ goes the Tory lie, and by trying to prove that they can run the economy, the Labour front bench has capitulated to that lie. Yes it would’ve been a better if the banks had been regulated, yes it would’ve been better if we’d not spent billions on Iraq, but we have nothing to apologise for our record of economic governance. An American banking collapse, something that the British government had no control of, sent shockwaves around the world and we had to bail out british banks to ensure that millions upon millions of ordinary people still had their life savings. Over the 11 years of Labour government before the crash, the national debt of this country fell. Before the ConDems took over, unemployment was falling, wages were rising and living standards were rising. We don’t need to show that we can manage the economy, because we’ve done it before.
Secondly, it is clear that there is a part of the Party that wants to win the anti-benefits brigade’s vote. These are the people that believe the whole ‘scroungers – strivers’ narrative, that think young people ‘have never had it better’ and, guess what, these are the people that most venomously hate the Labour party. There is no way we can be seen to dislike the welfare state more than the Tories because, newsflash, the Tories do. Surprisingly enough Labour can’t pretend to be more like the Tories than the actual Tories. Why not go for the real thing? The party that founded the welfare state will never be seen to want to slim it down.
Ed Miliband needs a narrative. He can’t talk about responsible capitalism and ‘sharing the weight’ while planning to cut benefits for some of the worst off. He has played the appeaser for a good 4 years now, which has helped to keep the Party untied. But now as he must prepare for government, his views must be consistent. This policy seems out of character and against his views, just like posing with the Sun. As a free agent he wouldn’t have done it and as the Leader of the Labour party, he shouldn’t have done it. It seems to be a half-arsed attempt to combat youth unemployment. It won’t get young people into work because the jobs aren’t there. Rather than finding the deep and dark roots of the problem and dealing with that, the Labour policy unit has decided they’d rather cut off a few leaves and call it a day. If there was a labour shortage, by all means get people into training, but that won’t happen anytime soon. Instead of being radical and providing a plan to change Britain for the better, the opposition would rather tinker.
He and the entire shadow cabinet need at all costs to lose the wonk. That’ll be hard given that almost all of them speak only in a Whitehall jargon which confuses even the most seasoned politicos. But Miliband does best when he’s sincere and acts like himself: geeky, yes, but also extremely clever and compassionate. If he always acted like he did when he took on Murdoch then he’d waltz into Number 10. The cries of ‘he’s not prime ministerial material’ or ‘can you imagine him leading our country?’ can be silenced. Easily.
We’re at a strange intersection of political culture. We want our politicians to be statesman-like but at the same time not smoozy and not too slick. Ed Miliband can show that a normal person, even someone with no great media stature, can become Prime Minister. But only by ignoring the New Labour mantra, still stuck in the early 2000s, will he manage. Only by setting out on a course of real modern socialism: democracy, fairness, equality in all areas of our society, will he manage. Only through a radical programme of hope, not blame, will he win back the 5 million votes lost since 1997. Only through a radical programme of alternatives will he counter the rise of UKIP and their neo-fascist cronies. And only through a radical programme of real change will he ensure that any Labour government that comes to power in 2015 will do the right thing.
Which will hopefully involve owls.