Thursday, 17 July 2014

A Project On A Different Scale

Anne Perkins writes:

It’s Labour’s national policy forum this weekend, in Milton Keynes.

Not obviously something to set the heart racing, more the apogee of political managerialism. The kind of place where the dead hand of a cautious leadership might very easily reach out and chill all the ambition out of the party’s programme for government.

The Labour leadership seems paralysed by the contest between what the party wants and what the voter will support. It is locked in by such detailed analysis of the options that blinking appears overly risky.

Facing a swaggering Conservative leadership that increasingly reveals a nasty bullying streak, Labour is tending to give off the anxious vibes of the weedy kid in the playground, eyes down, hands in its pockets, too ready for flight instead of fight.

In policy terms, that translated last month into taking the whole of the IPPR’s Condition of Britain report and presenting it as a bitter little project to make young unemployed people earn or learn.

Yet boldness pays in politics, and Ed Miliband has proved that.

He is good at making the political weather: he did it over Murdoch and phone hacking, he did it over the energy companies and unfair pricing, and he did it with the whole focus on the squeezed middle.

He’s best when he is ahead of public opinion, but not beyond its reach.

This weekend, it looks as if the long campaign to get Labour to support renationalising the railways will come to a head.

Candidates in marginal seats are arguing for it. So are a majority of constituency parties. And so, obviously, are the rail unions. And they will all be stating the case at the national policy forum.

In the over-anxious analysis of the leadership, all of the above may make an overwhelming argument for rejecting it, despite hints that Miliband, who has said he’s open to innovative solutions, is sympathetic.

Yesterday’s monstering by David Cameron at PMQs over Harriet Harman’s moderate assertion that it was right that middle-income people paid more tax is a vivid explanation of why more nervous voices may prevail.

The Tories will do all they can to frame the Labour election manifesto as a blueprint for economic failure that is entirely driven by the need to placate union paymasters.

Even the dullest imagination can comprehend how gleefully Lynton Crosby would fall on the merest hint of a move towards state ownership.

And the support of the unions is high-octane fuel for the propaganda machine.

All the same, it could work.

The current system costs the taxpayer billions and rail users, particularly commuters, far more than most people can easily afford.

And while it is true that it all feels shinier and swifter than in the days before privatisation, that was after years of under investment.

And even now the trains don’t even run on time, while trying to get compensation for delays is even more complicated than switching energy suppliers.

Miliband’s people should take heart from the trajectory of the energy campaign.

The immediate reaction to the policy of freezing prices and reviewing the energy market was to brand it as the final, predictable swing of the Labour pendulum back to its natural resting place over anti-business state intervention and monolithic service provision.

But once the Tory strategists grasped that it resonated, that voters did feel ripped off by their energy providers, and that they were fed up with prices that always went up and never came down, the rhetoric went into reverse.

Bringing railways back into some form of public ownership is a project on a different scale.

It can’t be “Bring back British Rail”, an automatic cue for grainy footage of old rolling stock and curling sandwiches.

But it can be done incrementally, and in novel ways.

In politics, danger is also opportunity.

A Labour party that led a well-reasoned articulate challenge to the version of history that says the state can never do anything right and public ownership is a sure route to disaster, using the language of, for example, German social democracy – think Deutsche Bahn and Arriva – may find that rather than plunging off the cliff of unpopularity, it is saying what a lot of voters are already thinking.

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