Labour’s leader must maintain the momentum by mounting a rigorous challenge on vested interests, writes Alf Young
It’s been a week of surprises. My wee football team, so bereft of guile and fight in a league drubbing at Cappielow last Saturday, ventured to Glasgow’s East End on Tuesday evening and dumped the mighty Celtic out of the Scottish League Cup. The only pity: I couldn’t be there. By then, we were in France for a long-planned break, where a web black-out in our corner of the Languedoc meant it was Thursday before I could savour Dougie Imrie’s extra-time penalty on YouTube.
Morton’s unbelievable triumph wasn’t the only big surprise this week. Ed Miliband, written off by so many over the summer, even by significant voices within his own party, has been to Brighton to unveil a raft of new policies and deliver a conference speech whose political artistry even right wing commentators acknowledged. Peter Osborne in the Telegraph called it “virtuoso”. He even compared Miliband to Clem Attlee and the “civilised approach to politics” Labour’s post-war leader represented.
For months, Labour’s current leader has been on the rack over his party’s Falkirk selection debacle. At daggers drawn with big union barons over the block vote. Spattered with eggs. Told by his unreconciled brother, David, words like “predistribution” will never fit on a campaign pledge card. Advised by one of his own policy gurus, Maurice, now Lord Glasman, to “grow up”.
Labour had lamentably failed to stop the coalition pinning the entire blame for the crash and the resultant deficit on its final years in office. Who could say where it stood on issues like welfare reform, growth, Europe and much else besides? Where was the competing vision that, in hard times, might resonate meaningfully with the concerns of the mass of voters?
After last Saturday’s defeat, lots of Morton fans were calling for the manager’s head and bracing themselves for relegation at the end of this season. Labour, under Mr Miliband, seemed bound for its own sustained downward spiral into political irrelevance. The emerging consensus, confirmed in polls by even a majority of Labour supporters, seemed clear. Mr Miliband wasn’t up to the job. He should make way for someone else if the party was to have any chance of regaining power in 2015
What a difference a month makes. In politics, as in football, sentiment can switch from apocalypse to triumph and back again, almost in the blink of an eye. Post Brighton, Mr Miliband’s leadership appears impregnable. And the new initiatives trailed this week, notably his plan to freeze consumer electricity and gas prices until 2017, pending a shake-up of the competitive structure of the industry, will strike a popular chord, as the first polling evidence – a nine point bounce in a poll published in the Sun poll – is already showing.
For the first time since the privatisations of major state-owned industries in the 1980s and 1990s, a political leader has broken away from the prevailing UK consensus, that the kind of market capitalism embodied in large-scale corporate power delivering all our needs, other than health and education, is an unquestionable public good.
For some, this is proof that Mr Miliband is indeed Red Ed, an unreconstructed socialist out to grab back what Old Labour’s Clause lV called “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and control and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”. After all, as the Daily Mail was quick to point out, this is a man whose Marxist father Ralph lies buried in London’s Highgate cemetery, just yards from the tomb of Karl himself.
Some of the Big Six energy suppliers, notably the two that are not now Spanish, French or German owned – Perth-headquartered SSE and British and Scottish Gas parent, Centrica – went into hyperbolic overdrive. There were claims Mr Miliband’s price freeze would trigger an investment drought, lead to the lights going out, even spell economic ruin were they to exit that increasingly unprofitable bit of their business.
There was nothing in what Mr Miliband actually said to suggest any government he led would launch a 21st-century grab for control of the commanding heights of the economy. The offer to have Labour’s manifesto vetted by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility suggests no ambition to stray very far from the fiscal path the coalition has set on tax and spend.
It is wrong to suggest that Mr Miliband is simply continuing a New Labour tradition, set under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, of “attacking vested interests” wherever they arise. The incoming Blair government in 1997 did indeed levy a one-off tax on the profits of privatised utilities, to help fund its new deal for the young unemployed.
But it did so on the grounds that previous Tory governments had privatised these state-owned assets too cheaply, not to challenge the corporate vested interests that process had created. Where is the evidence that, in the Blair and Brown years, successive New Labour governments mounted any such challenge?
As early as 1998, on a visit to California’s Silicon Valley, trade and industry secretary Peter Mandelson told Hewlett Packard executives the government he represented was “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”. He just wanted more of them to bring their entrepreneurial drive to Britain. And Gordon Brown, as chancellor, produced a whole raft of tax sweeteners for risk takers, in budget after budget, to drive the point home.
And where New Labour regulated key sectors like the banks, energy and transport companies, far from challenging corporate vested interests, it did as little as possible for fear of snuffing out the flame of enterprise. As Mr Brown himself put it in a speech to the CBI in 2005, “no inspection without justification, no form filling without justification, and no information requirements without justification, not just a light touch but a limited touch”.
Two years later, Northern Rock was staring over an abyss. Another year on and RBS and Lloyds had to be saved from themselves. The big energy companies know that, like the profligate banks that ushered in this age of austerity, they are not now trusted by the public at large. They fit the bill as practitioners of what Ed Miliband, back in 2011, dubbed predatory capitalism.
It’s not hard to see why so many people think their energy supplier is ripping them off.
On average, domestic energy bills have risen by 37 per cent since 2007 while, thanks to wage curbs and austerity in the wake of the banking crisis, household incomes have risen just 3 per cent over the same period.
As SSE’s former CEO Ian Marchant retired at 51 this summer filthy rich, as Mr Mandelson might have it, the company he led was being fined £10.5 million by Ofgem for mis-selling gas and electricity. This week Clydesdale Bank was fined £8.9m by the Financial Conduct Authority for maladministration of customers’ mortgage accounts.
If he is willing to champion the squeezed middle by vigorously challenging self-regarding vested interests in big business and beyond, Ed Miliband really can begin to break the current mould of post-crash politics, offering the hope that we really can all be better than this.