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Thursday 31st January 2013 | 20:02
Like many Leaders of the Opposition before him, Ed Miliband is used to the prefix ‘long suffering’. As a Leeds United fan, he’s also perhaps more familiar than most at backing a team that has fallen from grace.
But with 2013 barely started, the Labour leader has reasons to be cheerful. The boundary vote has denied David Cameron a crucial 20 seats, talk of leadership contests has returned to the Tory backbenches and Nick Clegg appeared to admit mistakes on the economy. Even Leeds United have just scored a giant-killing victory against Spurs in the FA Cup.
Having been seen as the underdog for a long time, Mr Miliband seems to relish confounding expectations. With his barnstorming party conference speech having cemented his own position, he’s started the New Year upbeat about the long road to 2015. When asked to describe his and his party’s mood, he replies “confident and optimistic”.
“The reason for that is that I think there’s only one political party now that can unite the country, that’s the Labour Party,” he says. “This is why One Nation is so important for us.” Yes, that Disraeli theme is for a Parliament, not just a conference. “One Nation is fundamentally about how we rebuild the country with everyone playing their part. I think that is what people want. They are not expecting easy answers from the Labour Party – and they are not going to get easy answers. But they are going to get answers and they are going to get a sense of hope and a sense of vision.”
With only a handful of seats in great swathes of the south, he knows that the One Nation mission can’t make any sense unless he makes inroads into Blue England. “We are determined to show people that we can govern for the whole country. It’s incredibly important to us that we are a party of the south as well as the north,” he says.
“Sometimes in the Labour party we talk about the north-south divide. It’s fine to talk about the north-south divide, but we should talk about the divides within the south, within different parts of the country. Because it’s not as if everybody in the south is doing incredibly well. Lots of people in the south, including on middle incomes, are struggling, struggling with higher train fares, struggling with their energy bills, small businesses struggling to get loans from the banks.”
“The Conservative party is in retreat really. It’s narrowing its base. You saw that in the way he [the Prime Minister] handled some of the issues around Europe. They’ve divided the country with scroungers and strivers and all that. And I think you will also see in April a very, very big contrast, a Government that is cutting taxes for the richest in society. I think this is a massive issue in politics. At a time when they’ve been telling us for three years all these things that they can’t afford to do, they are going to cut taxes for the richest and they are going to be hitting lower and middle income people incredibly hard.”
He’s just had a meeting with John Denham, who runs Labour’s Southern Taskforce, and it’s clear the boundary vote has fired the starting gun on the race to the next election.
“What you are going to see from us this year, as we select our candidates now the boundaries are settled, as we target those 100 or so seats for the General Election, is a party reaching out to all parts of the country but also a party that’s going to get people from all backgrounds: business people; I want more people who are military and ex-military, like Dan Jarvis, in the Party. People from all class backgrounds because frankly I think Parliament is too middle class and doesn’t have that diversity that it needs to have.”
Key to the Labour message of uniting the country is helping what Miliband calls “the forgotten 50%” who don’t go to university. He wants to push hard with Labour’s plan for a ‘TechBacc’, a gold standard vocational qualification aimed at meeting the needs of employers. A Labour Government would have apprentices in every Government department, but business has to play its part too. This week, he’s announced a new policy where for every million pounds of Government contract, one new apprentice should be appointed by firms. “Employers have to step up. We are saying that in every major procurement, employers have to provide an apprenticeship. That is part of One Nation. We can’t have employers just free-riding and saying ‘well I’m going to get a big Government contract but I’m not going to provide the apprenticeships’. I’m saying in relation to HS2, a £33bn project, we should be talking about 33,000 apprentices.”
Mr Miliband is a big fan of the high speed rail line, itself a living bridge between the two nations of the north and south. “I think we should now get on with it. I’m not looking for a change in the route.” But he doesn’t think it’s a panacea to the Coalition’s problems: “I’m a supporter of HS2 but it isn’t an answer to the growth strategy. It only starts in 2017. It’s something for the infrastructure of the future.”
As for apprenticeships, he says: “It needs government to play its part, employers to play their part and obviously the people to take what’s on offer. So I think there’s a huge difference we can make to this, and partly by having a Prime Minister who is focused on it and who really cares about it. Look, of course I care about those going to university and I continue to think the fees issue is a big issue but we’ve got to have that focus. It’s also about the way this is seen in the country. I went to university but the problem is for too long it’s been seen as a second class thing not to go to university, even if you’ve got an excellent vocational qualification. It isn’t like that in Germany, it isn’t like that elsewhere and we’ve absolutely got to change it.”
Warming to his theme of vocational education, the Labour leader is scathing about Michael Gove’s decision to take the engineering diploma out of the curriculum and to ‘squeeze’ work experience out of the classroom. “You just hear when you go round the country that he’s attracting real anger from people because I think they feel like he just doesn’t get what the modern world and the modern economy requires.”
“I think Michael Gove is a throwback and the way he’s approaching education policy is a throwback – and not in a good sense. What you are seeing is a narrowing of education in a number of senses. A narrowing of what it means to achieve educationally. The EBacc is squeezing creativity out of the curriculum and also going back to a sense that the only thing that matters is training a few high flyers. That is wrong.
“It’s really important, this. You can’t succeed in the global competition that we have if you just rely on a few people, what I call the forgotten wealth creators. Actually, it’s not just the high rollers, people earning the highest salaries, [it’s] people right across the income spectrum doing all kinds of jobs, some went to university, some not.”
Fresh from a PMQs where he threw the kitchen sink at the Coalition’s discomfort over the stalling economy, Mr Miliband says: “You need to step back a minute from all the day to day hurly burly of Westminster. What’s the most significant thing that’s happened since the New Year? It’s obviously what happened last Friday, the [negative] GDP figures. Those are incredibly disappointing figures and I think you’re seeing pressure building up in the Conservative Party for people to say ‘look, this isn’t working, it’s hurting’. That is where the battleground is. David Cameron has sort of forgotten the first rule of politics, which is ‘the economy, stupid’. He can do his Europe business, but in the end what is going to make a difference to the economy?”
But as an economist by training and a former Treasury aide, how does he explain the way unemployment keeps on falling despite the flatlining economy?
“Some of it is maybe hard to explain. There are two things. One, why is the economy not growing? Actually I don’t think it’s very complicated as to why the economy is not growing. What are the four sources of growth? Consumption – but people’s living standards are being squeezed. Investment – but business confidence is low. Government – but Government spending is being squeezed. And exports. There’s no other magic solution to where growth comes from. And they always put too much stall by the fact that exports was going to bail them out.”
“On the jobs thing, there are things that need to be understood about the jobs figures. I welcome any increase that there is in employment. But I’m worried about the number of people who are working part time but want to work full time – underemployment. Of course party time work is often right for people, lots of people. If that’s what people want, fine. But as I understand it from the figures there’s been a huge increase in the number of people saying we really want full time work but we could only get part time work.
“I think there are some people being pushed out of employment. Obviously I want the fall in unemployment to carry on, but I really think they’ve got to sort out the growth problem.”
Another area where Mr Miliband wants to put flesh on the bones of his One Nation approach – while also proving Labour wants value for money – is in health care. He says Andy Burnham’s plan for a combined national health and social care service proves the Party is coming up with radical policy.
“This is actually also a vision founded on the basis of optimism. It also is a recognition by me and the Labour Party that we are going to be governing in difficult times. Of course the health service is always going to be a big priority for us but, you know, there isn’t going to be lots and lots of money to spend.”
“This is about saying ‘what is a positive vision for the future of the health service?’ and really getting to this point, which is thinking about it from the point of view of the patient. You’ve at the moment got three separate services, physical health mental health social care. And that isn’t the way people are. Because if you are an elderly person or you are a person with mental health problems and physical health problems, you want them treated together. So it’s trying to re-orientate, change the health service so it does that. Secondly I think it responds to this issue of more and more elderly people being in hospital and people being worried about their care.
“It’s a huge issue for our generation. Every dinner table in the country it’s a big worry about mums, dads aunts and uncles, and it is upto our generation to find a better solution than the solution we’ve got…that’s why I want to take our time to go out and talk to people about where it goes.”
He also suggests that those worries about the standard of care are more likely to be addressed by a radical look at the system rather than blaming nurses. He knows that for some ‘uncaring nurses’ are the target.
“Personally, I think that doesn’t get to the truth. Because I don’t think most nurses, the vast majority or all probably of the nurses, that go into the profession are uncaring. What is it about the strain on the system and the way the system is working that is causing some of these issues? Now what Andy’s answer to that is, which I think is the right answer, is to say actually the health service is facing needs and difficulties that it was never facing even 20 years ago…There’s no excuse for substandard care but what we’ve got to do is change the health service so it genuinely integrates health care and social care and so on.”
With the Government due to announce soon its own response to the Dilnot report on elderly care funding, Mr Miliband worries about reports that the Chancellor has set a cap of £75,000 on care costs (much higher than Dilnot suggested).
“I think people will think just to implement ‘Dilnot very, very lite’ is probably not going to achieve what Dilnot set out to achieve and therefore I really don’t think that’s a good solution. But we will look at what they come up with. These aren’t easy questions. We would still like to have a cross-party approach,” he says.
Cross-party working with David Cameron is unlikely over Europe, however. A week on from the Prime Minister’s promise of an in/out referendum on Europe, and Mr Miliband’s own rejection of one during PMQs, the Labour leader is steadfast.
“As time will pass our position will seem more and more like the right position for the country, which is: Should you commit now to an in/out referendum a year hence? Is that in the interests of our economy and people investing here? Is it in the interests of getting a good negotiating deal? Cameron himself said in [a Commons vote in] October 2011 [that] committing now to an in/out referendum will harm our negotiating stance. My answer to those questions is no, I don’t think it was the right thing to do, you know, so that’s the position we take.”
But is this a ‘no’ forever to a referendum, or does the Labour leader prefer to say ‘never say never’? “Is it right to commit now to an in/out referendum a year hence? No, it isn’t right now,” he replies. “Let’s do the negotiations and see what emerges from the negotiations.” No means no – for now.
Intriguingly, one of the 19 Labours who voted in favour of a referendum in that 2011 vote is Jon Cruddas, who now leads Labour’s policy review. So is Cruddas trying to change his leader’s view?
“No. Look, I knew his position before he became the head of the policy review. I don’t think it was any surprise to anybody. He totally accepts and supports our position.”
And what of reports that it was Ed’s brother David who helped persuade him against backing Cameron on an in/out referendum? “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” Mr Miliband replies, with a smile, adding: “Of course I talk to him about these issues.”
The PM, Miliband believes, has buckled under pressure from two sources. The first is his backbenchers – whom Mr Miliband says will now be emboldened to ask for more. “If I’d said to you a week ago Cameron will cave into his party on Europe and they will still be talking about a leadership challenge, you’d have said ‘come off it, they will give him a week off.’ These guys, they don’t say ‘thanks very much’ and then shut up. They, sort of, keep coming back for more…”
The second pressure point is UKIP leader Nigel Farage. “I fear that what he’s ended up doing is despite calling Nigel Farage all sorts of names he’s ended up following him,” the Labour leader claims.
Given the UKIP leader’s supposed influence, and the enhanced poll ratings that come with it, perhaps he should be allowed a place in the televised leaders’ debates?
“I sort of think let’s get the Prime Minister to the TV debates first,” Mr Miliband replies, leaving the door open. “Look. I just want to do the debates. I want the debates to happen wherever and whenever they can happen. So I sort of think it’s for the people who are organising the debates, and for me to start dictating who’s at the debates is not the right thing to do. Let’s get the people who are organising the debates to make the suggestions about how they want to do the debates. I think they are important, I think they were a good innovation, I think I feel warmer about them than the Prime Minister clearly does …I don’t think he should be ducking them.”
Yet there is still one area where the Labour leader has common cause with some Tory Eurosceptics: the EU budget. The issue will return to the Commons for another crunch vote this year once EU leaders finally agree on a deal. Last year he called for and voted for a real terms cut in the Budget. He insists “that is our position”. But he is keeping his cards close to his chest: “Let’s see what he comes back with, let’s see what deal he gets for Britain.”
Like the Tories, Labour has had its own share of internal party battles over the years. But as a survivor of the Blarite-Brownite wars, this Labour leader is convinced that he leads a more united party than his two predecessors. “We are an incredibly disciplined and united party,” Mr Miliband says. “This is a party that has learned the habit of discipline.”
He then tells a story of how the long-serving Labour MP Frank Dobson, Blair’s first Health Secretary, shared his thoughts on the changing party moods in Westminster. “‘For 30 years in this place the party of collectivists, Labour, has behaved like a group of individualists, and the party of individualists [Conservatives] has behaved like a group of collectivists. And now I’ve seen that turned round’,” the backbencher told the Labour leader. Mr Miliband says Dobson’s is a “really smart point”.
What boosted party unity was the defeat of Government plans for redrawing constituency boundaries and reducing the number of MPs to 600.
He dismisses the review as “an attempt to gerrymander the boundaries to the advantage of the Conservative Party”, one with the added risk of disenfranchising six million unregistered voters. “I’ll tell you my own instincts on this. I think that the problem at the moment is people think ‘my MP doesn’t do enough to represent me’ so I don’t think that saying ‘you need to represent more people as an MP’ is necessarily the great solution.”
Next Tuesday sees the second reading of a bill to bring in gay marriage. With over 100 Tory MPs said to be opposed to the legislation, is Mr Miliband eyeing an embarrassing day for David Cameron? “I’ll let the Tory Party speak for itself,” he replies. At any rate, he’s predicting a “big turnout of Labour MPs in full support” after enthusiastically telling any backbencher who asks that they should follow him into the Aye lobby. “I want this to go through. It’s about people who love each other and want the chance to get married and I don’t think they should be denied,” he states. And if the Tories reject the bill in force, is this confirmation that the nasty party is back?
“We don’t need the equal marriage [vote] to see the nasty party is back,” he replies, pointing to the use of terms such as “strivers” and “shirkers” during debates on welfare as “cheap, nasty politics”.
And it’s further proof, he adds, that the Compassionate Conservatism preached by David Cameron in the middle of the last decade has vanished. The Prime Minister, says Mr Miliband, has “been under more and more pressure from the inside of the Tory Party and in the opinion polls” and is “retreating to something he said he’d never… a route he’d never go down”.
To illustrate his argument, Mr Miliband points to the PM’s repeated stalling on a series of questions at PMQs on food banks.
“He can’t bring himself to say he’s going to visit a food bank. It shouldn’t be an awkward question for a Prime Minister and it is – and it says something about where he’s ended up.”
Another area where the early Cameroon sheen has worn away is on the environment, he says. Ever having one eye on the US, Mr Miliband watched Barack Obama’s inauguration speech with interest. For where the President renewed his commitment to tackle climate change, the former Energy Secretary wants to follow. “It’s absolutely part of One Nation. It’s absolutely part of saying we’ve got to protect the things we value for future generations, the environment, the planet… absolutely top priority.”
And with the Energy Bill due to come before the Commons, the Labour leader confirms that he will be backing Tory MP Tim Yeo’s amendment to bring in a decarbonisation target. “Certainly. I want to work with people right across the political spectrum on this so I hope Tories will support us, and others,” he says, stressing that investors “want that certainty” in the power sector.
“What I learnt as Climate Change Secretary is you don’t win this argument by saying it’s simply about protecting the environment, the planet, for future generations, important though that is, you win it on the economy by saying it is actually about the jobs of the future, and what the Government has done to create uncertainty in the renewable sector is terrible,” Mr Miliband argues.
“The idea that they are the greenest government ever is for the birds…the angry birds,” he adds, referencing the Prime Minister’s favourite app chillaxant.
As for his own chillaxing, the Labour leader has been watching the movie Lincoln (his wife liked it more than he did), and reading John Lanchester’s novel Capital. But it is sport that provides a more difficult form of R&R. Ever since he lived as a boy in the States, Mr Miliband has been a big fan of American football. But he’s unlikely to be watching the Superbowl this Sunday. His own team, the New England Patriots got knocked out of the competition last week, despite the Labour leader staying up well after his bedtime: “I watched the first half and we were leading 13-7. It was 1am. It was very bad timing – I had a breakfast [meeting] at 8:30, and I thought, I can’t watch until 3 o’clock in the morning. So I went to bed, woke up the next morning, and found out that we’d lost 28-13.”
“I’m a long-suffering fan. Basically, being a Patriots fan is a bit like being a Leeds United fan, you suffer a lot for a long time…”
But at least his football team offers more hope. He recalls that he bumped into fellow supporter, Tory MP Mark Pritchard this week and they were both delighted at the ‘fantastic’ FA Cup victory. “He’s a Leeds United fan. He was saying to me ‘we must go to the Final if they do it’…” The Labour leader and a Tory Eurosceptic arm in arm at Wembley? That really would be One Nation.
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