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Will the real radicals please stand up?

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

At the next election, all parties will agree that Britain is in a mess. They will disagree about is who is to blame. Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats will say that Labour left behind an even bigger set of problems than people realise; their government has started to fix things, they’ll argue, but they need more time. Labour will claim that the ‘austerity coalition’ has choked off growth.

But what’s odd — given that we’re heading for a second election where the voters will say ‘no’ when asked whether they’re better off now than five years ago — is the lack of radicalism in British politics. The ideas doing the rounds in Westminster do not meet the test of the moment. To be sure, the coalition is doing some radical things, including making significant changes in education and welfare. In the long run, these will boost Britain’s competitiveness.

But David Cameron, by temperament, is not a rip-it-up-and-start-again man. He prefers to work with what’s there already. Indeed, what is striking about his plan for a renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union is how much he intends to leave alone. He has already ruled out the idea of Britain negotiating some status outside the single market.

Nick Clegg is a radical in the proper sense of the term; he wants to change the constitutional order. But as the referendum on the alternative vote and the lack of public enthusiasm for Lords reform showed, this kind of reform isn’t in fashion. This country’s most pressing problems aren’t constitutional ones.

In both Cameron and Clegg’s case, though, there is something else going on: it is very difficult to take on the established order when you’re in charge. If you are not careful, you take on responsibility for the system. Avoiding this fate requires a conscious act of will. A few months after the coalition came to office, I was surprised to see Michael Gove vigorously applauding criticisms of the education system being made in a think-tank lecture. Afterwards, I asked him how long he felt he could clap such sentiments. He replied that the moment he stopped doing so was when he should quit. But few other ministers would be happy to applaud criticisms — direct or indirect — of their departments.

This should provide an opening for Ed Miliband. Miliband was one of the first British politicians to argue that the British economic model was broken. Of the major contenders in the Labour leadership contest, he was the most prepared to admit what the last government had got wrong. Friends say that the fact that he broke off from working for Gordon Brown to go to Harvard has given him a perspective on the Blair and Brown years that many of his colleagues lack.

Miliband, though, has not yet found a clear way to tell the public how he would change Britain. He has talked about big themes — responsible capitalism, ‘one-nation’ Labour. But there’s frustration in his circle that the policy the party is coming out with is too often disconnected from them.

The charge that there’s a lack of policy riles Miliband’s aides. Challenge them about it and they’ll argue with an intensity that will put you off your lunch about how Miliband has come out with more policy than Tony Blair or Cameron had at this stage. But the quantity of policy is not in dispute; the question is whether all those detailed proposals really illuminate the big ideas Miliband has talked about. It is hard to think of specific examples of his commitment to responsible capitalism. He is telling the country what he wants to do, not showing it.

A friend of Miliband points to his Fabian Society speech as an example of what’s going wrong. It made an interesting argument about how, borrowing a phrase from Barack Obama, the economy needed to be grown from the middle out not the top down. But the new policy in the speech was about clamping down on ‘rogue landlords’. This might be a good idea but it is hard to see how it relates to building a new kind of economy. The speech was a missed opportunity for Miliband. If he wants to move the economic argument beyond the question of what cuts he will or won’t accept, then he needs to say what his alternative economic policy agenda is. His failure to do this compounds the problems caused by Labour’s determination not to commit to any post-2015 spending plans. It leads to an emphasis on small-bore initiatives such as a landlords’ register.

There’s also a sense that Miliband has held back from saying how different he is from his Labour predecessors. Some complain that members of the shadow cabinet get too jumpy about any criticism of the last Labour government. But given how much Labour’s record on certain issues contributed to it losing support, Miliband needs to show voters that he represents a change from both Blair and Brown. But it is, perhaps, only on immigration that he has made clear not only that he thinks the last Labour government had it wrong but also what he would do differently.

One should note that Napoleon Bonaparte would advise Labour against any big, new initiatives at this time. As one ally of Miliband puts it, ‘You don’t want to overly interrupt a government that is making a lot of mistakes.’

Again, though, there is concern among Miliband’s intellectual fraternity that an opportunity is being missed. They fear that too many of those involved in Labour’s electoral planning are hoping to win by a series of tactical feints. They fret that the political street-fighters in the operation are scared of Miliband’s intellectual shadow, that they have steered him away from interesting but complex ideas like predistribution.

I understand that Miliband will begin to come out with his signature policies at autumn conference. By then his policy review will have reported and he’ll try to set out how he will make concepts such as responsible capitalism real to voters; expect the living wage to be a major part of this.

There’s a risk in this delay. The longer Miliband goes without showing what he means by a one-nation economy or responsible capitalism, the more the media will fixate on which spending cuts he does or doesn’t accept. Miliband could end up presenting himself as a far less interesting politician than he actually is.

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