An iron law of politics has been broken. The
rulebook states clearly that if traditional Labour red meat is gobbled up inside
the conference hall, the electorate watching from afar will start to gag.
at least three decades that has been the received wisdom, accepted by Labour
luminaries along with the rest of the political class: if it tickles Labour's
erogenous zone, then it's too leftwing for the country.
But that was before Ed Miliband's proposed
20-month freeze on energy bills. It sent the Brighton conference hall into convulsions of ecstasy
, of course, but it also received an
"off the charts" welcome from the public.
Indeed, it's had the
Conservatives and their allies reeling in rare confusion
as they head to their own clan gathering
Usually the Tories can cheerfully brand any Labour move leftward
as a doomed journey into electoral Siberia: what should they say now, when Ed's
hint of red is unarguably popular?
It prompts an intriguing thought: if using the
state to rein in the energy behemoths finds favour with the voters, what other
left ideas might be popular? Can Miliband repeat his success and craft a
populism of the left?
If populism often comes down to channelling
public anger against a perceived elite, there is plenty of rich terrain for
Labour to explore, much of it in the same area exploited so adroitly this week.
The party's former pollster, Deborah Mattinson
, says that any action against the banks, widely
loathed since the crash of 2008, remains an automatic vote-winner.
there is not a spending measure yet invented that cannot be sold to the public,
so long as it is funded by a levy on bankers.
Meanwhile, the corporate giants
exposed for paying next to no tax – Starbucks, Amazon, Google and the like –
have also made "hitting big business very popular".
Any action on petrol
prices would enjoy huge approval: along with home heating, it's the daily cost
voters complain of most.
While he's at it, Miliband can draw comfort from the
knowledge that a 50p top rate of tax commands 68% support, with equal enthusiasm
for Labour's proposed mansion tax on £2m-plus properties.
All of this would be both in Labour's comfort
zone and popular. What, though, of those areas where Labour's instincts
apparently diverge from the public's – tough matters such as welfare or immigration? Surely on those, it is only Ukip and the Tories who can play the populist card?
Start with welfare – or, as Labour would need to
rebrand it, social security. The Conservatives see this as Labour's prime
weakness: why not play Tory bingo in Manchester, counting up how often Labour
is dubbed "the welfare party". It's a George Osborne-Lynton Crosby
favourite, knowing it fits with a focus-group perception of Labour as the
Yet Labour need not resign itself to this fate. There
could be a way to make its own views connect, even here, with the public's.
Presentation makes a difference: emphasising children who need help is always
powerful, as is highlighting the plight of people with disabilities, central to
the effective campaign against the bedroom tax. But it's not enough.
, the one-time head of the Downing Street policy unit
who now runs the IPPR thinktank, offers a reminder that state provision of,
say, education, health and pensions remains hugely popular: "The
collective approach still resonates with people."
Britons still recoil
from a world in which it's every man for himself: the challenge is to extend
that impulse to those who have fallen on hard times, those currently branded
"skivers". Pearce suggests a crucial step is giving welfare provision
an institutional embodiment. People do not resent paying for education and
health because they can see schools and hospitals with their own eyes.
transfers that show up as digits on a bank account don't have the same
emotional power. Labour got it right this week, says Pearce, by ensuring its
increase in childcare provision
will come through neighbourhood children's
centres rather than by giving parents more in tax credits.
run by people you get to know – local institutions – trump mere benefits every
time. The public will grow attached to, even come to love, the former, but can
eventually despise the latter.
Still, that does not get to the heart of the
matter. Public frustration with welfare mostly centres on unfairness, the sense
that some people are getting something for nothing.
The remedy here surely lies
in what Labour's thinkers call reciprocity, or the contributory principle:
reasserting the ethos that underpinned the long-gone mutual and co-operative
societies that paved the way for Labour – ensuring that what you get out
relates to what you put in.
This way, when a woman over 50 gets laid off, she
can expect more help, reflecting the fact that she's been paying into the kitty
for longer than most. Jon Cruddas, Liam Byrne and others around Labour's top table
are keen on just such an approach: Miliband himself, it seems, is wary,
believing that it's someone's need, not their past contribution history, that
should determine how much they get.
Immigration is similar, starting with, among
other feelings, that same fear of unfairness: why are these people able to come
here and enjoy a health service I have been paying into all my life? Labour
needs to acknowledge that anger, but then speak to other instincts that are
just as popular.
The Blue Labour
recently did some provisional "paradoxical polling"
which produced fascinating results, suggesting exactly where a left populist
sweet spot might lie.
Large numbers were ready to describe themselves as, for example,
"pro-business but anti-bank" or "pro-European but anti-EU",
to say nothing of "pro-worker but anti-union". Importantly, they also
said they were "pro-immigrant, but anti-immigration".
That could be the cue for a campaign arguing that
"the NHS would collapse without immigration: we need the doctors and
nurses who have come here to work for it", a proposition that enjoys 52% support
Next would come the attempt, there in
Miliband's Tuesday speech, to reframe the immigration issue as one chiefly
about a labour market so deregulated it's become ripe for exploitation,
channelling people's anger away from migrants themselves towards the "shady
gangmasters" who make their lives a misery and keep wages down.
There are similar moves possible on patriotism or
It doesn't mean parroting the mantras of the right, but rather finding
that place where Labour beliefs and public attitudes meet.
For years, left
populism would have seemed like an oxymoron in Britain. The Tory-supporting
press still want that to be true. But this was the week they began to worry
they might be wrong.