What Labour should do next – my entirely unsought advice to Ed Miliband

by Stephen Tall on August 1, 2013

I’m one of a panel of five — alongside Ruth Porter, Max Wind-Cowie, Jonathan Isaby, Kathy Gyngell and Nick Faith — who offer entirely unsought advice to Ed Miliband today on ConservativeHome. A Lib Dem writing on a Tory website to advise the Labour party… They’re bound to listen, aren’t they? You can read all five over at ConHome here. But below are my thoughts about what Labour should do next…

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Ed Miliband. And that’s his first problem: pity is not the response you want to trigger if you want your next promotion to be Prime Minister.

Yet consider the facts. After three years of Coalition austerity, with Labour unchallenged as the party of the left, HM’s Official Opposition is trundling along at about 37% in the polls. Ahead of the Conservatives? Yes. Likely to win the largest number of MPs in 2015? Yes. But anywhere close to the lead they should be amassing to win in 2015? No. Politics is not just about being ahead. It’s also about having the momentum behind you. And at the moment that Big Mo belongs to the tail-up Tories.

So what can and should Labour do next?

The economy, stupid

The first thing they need to do is recognise how little they can do. It is hard, very hard, for a party which has been in government for a long time to bounce back within its first Opposition term. Just ask William Hague. Like Ed Miliband, he was a fresh-faced leader who was ineluctably tainted by his inheritance. It proved terminal to Mr Hague’s hopes. Mr Miliband is in a better position, not least because the electoral maths favours him: Labour can win an outright majority even if they’re level-pegging with the Conservatives on 35% each.

Ed Miliband should also accept that Labour has lost the argument over which party is to blame for our economic troubles. Polls consistently show more voters pointing the finger at the last Labour government. With growth, however anaemic and however London-centric, beginning to return Labour should give up fighting the battles of the past. Ed Balls’ mantra that the Coalition was cutting “too far and too fast” was a useful rallying cry for Labour in the first half of the parliament. Its downside is that it will now allow the Coalition to claim the credit for the tentative recovery.

Labour needs to move on fast, and start shouting about the need to secure a ‘One Nation Recovery’. The good news is that Michael Heseltine’s ‘No stone unturned’ regional growth plan provides both the policy ground-work with its call for greater investment as well as the political cover against Conservative accusations of profligacy.

Public services should be about the public

Labour has a bigger problem with its approach to public services: they’re stuck in a rut. It is not just that the party launches a ‘Save the NHS’ campaign every other week. More importantly, its emphasis should be on offering those of us who use our public services greater choice. Unfortunately for Mr Miliband three things prevent him from focusing on us, the taxpaying consumers.

First, Labour’s reliance on Unison, the public sector workers’ union, whose job is to safeguard the rights of its workers and which will sometimes rub up against the over-riding rights of the public.

Secondly, the popularity among Labour activists of Bennite-left campaign groups such as the People’s Assembly which emit a visceral hatred of private enterprise and view it as incompatible with public service. The reality is (inevitably) messier: just as there are good public sector providers and bad ones, the same is true of private sector providers of public services. Government’s role is always to ensure that our public services offer the consumer maximum choice. Labour has lost sight of that.

Thirdly, though Labour under Tony Blair talked the language of choice what that too often meant was handing mega-contracts to companies such as Serco and Atos, which, as Pete Hoskins has pointed out here, simply created ‘a state outside the state’ without any additional choice for the public.

Labour desperately needs more creative thinking about the delivery of public services, but it seems instead to be retreating to the safe harbour of cherishing large, centralised monolithic systems in the name of efficiency, even though all too often they neglect the needs of individuals.

Let Ed be Ed

The most important thing that Labour can do is let Ed Miliband play to his strengths. Whatever his political failings, he appears to be a man of integrity. He has, for instance, shunned (so far) the entreaties of those who have urged him to call Cameron’s bluff and push for an immediate in/out EU referendum simply to expose Tory divisions. It is not that he cannot see the gains from playing politics in this way. Rather, he is playing the long game. In less than two years Ed Miliband may well be Prime Minister and having to deal with the fall-out from a decision which seemed oh-so-clever at the time.

We live in the age of the geek. It’s cool to be a nerd, and that’s essentially who Ed Miliband is: a policy wonk. Look at his summer reading list, for heaven’s sake. Yet Labour remains policy-lite, scared that if they speak too soon the Conservatives and their friends in the press will steal the good ideas and pick holes in the rest. But the result is that Labour’s drifting without purpose.

Ed Miliband can afford to take a few more risks, to get it wrong a bit more often. What’s more important is that people see a man of ideas, a leader fizzing with vision and energy. At the moment, they just see a blancmange scared of its own shadow. And they feel sorry for it.