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Tuesday, November 23, 2010 

Initial policies and changes for Miliband's long haul.

One of the warning signs that Ed Miliband has not become the leader of a united, happy party is that the former usual suspects are going out of their way to say that he has. The sort of mutiny, even if it wasn't directed at him over Phil Woolas hints at how the party's old, mainly Blairite or even more senior guard is prepared to object should the new leadership step too far out of line. Add to this how Alan Johnson continues to make contradictory noises relating to both policy and the party's relationship with the unions, the sort of behaviour which would have been treated as heresy under previous regimes, and it's apparent that the party has yet to get used to being led by the younger brother of the perceived heir.

It hasn't helped that Miliband's two weeks of paternity leave have felt like much longer, or that it seemed most of the party's front bench had decided to take the time off as well. Not that this appears to have had any adverse effect: the latest ICM poll shows Labour has taken a two point lead over the Conservatives, something which can almost certainly be written off as all but meaningless. As gladly as some would welcome politicians deliberately absenting themselves from the public arena, it doesn't stack up as a viable long-term strategy.

Miliband's chief problem is deciding which of those currently on offer is the best. On this, as on so much else, he seems to be uncertain and needing far more in the way of advice. In his interview with the Guardian he recognises how "opposition is a long haul", and nothing like government, just in case that wasn't bleeding obvious. Alongside the welcome announcement of a root and branch policy review, albeit helmed by the very much not of the new generation Peter Hain, there's little on how to oppose and challenge the coalition on the policies it's pursuing right now.

This is, as previously argued, a government which is in a mad rush to legislate. Labour was often accused of coming up with new policies drawn up on either napkins or the back of cigarette packets, yet the coalition's stridency and almost continual pushing of either consultations or papers ought to be seen as just as deeply alarming. This week alone has already seen the publishing of the consultation on changes to social housing and tomorrow we have the education reform white paper to look forward to. Having already outlined the cuts to come in the spending review, along with the welfare reform white paper, likely to be voted upon after Christmas, this is a very different kind of government to the one which came to power in 1997. Then the key policies which were enacted almost immediately had been well advertised in advance: the windfall tax to fund the New Deal and the independence of the Bank of England. What followed for most of New Labour's first term was relative legislative calm, especially when contrasted to the reform and criminal justice mania which later set in. This placed the Tories in the quandary of almost not knowing what to do with themselves, and left them struggling to find a theme on which to base their campaigning around, especially when faced with what according to opinion polls and historical standards was an astoundingly popular governing party.

Labour and Miliband's dilemma posed by the government is almost the diametric opposite: there has been so much policy put forward already that the party ought to instinctively oppose that it could easily fall into the trap of spreading itself too thinly and not articulating a message to the public of how the party offers a viable, full alternative. Ed Miliband's opening theme of representing a new generation for change is laughably hollow, especially when surrounded by the detritus of the past government. He's also clearly struggling, as shown in the Guardian interview, with how exactly to move beyond New Labour's orthodoxies while not burying them completely, trying to keep onside those like Johnson who still base much of their thinking not necessarily on Blairite doctrine but instead on the more basic principle of it ain't broke, don't fix it.

This said, there are already welcome moves towards repudiating some of the party's worst legacies, and not just on the issues which were previously identified during the drift of the excessively long leadership contest. Ed Balls' admission, incredibly late admittedly, that they got it wrong on both 90 and 42 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects deserves more recognition than it has so received. This is doubly important for the reason that it was at the time and most likely remains a popular policy with the public, and one which was pursued on the cynical triangulating grounds of portraying the opposition as playing around with people's lives, not giving the police and security services what they needed to deal with the jihadist threat.

Clearly however it needs to go much further. This should be made far easier by moving into the space which has been so alarmingly quickly abandoned and vacated by the Liberal Democrats. When you recall that it was only a few short years ago that their most notable and instantly recognisable policy was the proposed imposition of a 50p top rate of tax for those earning over £100,000 a year, it's all the more risible that Nick Clegg now regards such "shibboleths" as indicative of "old progressives". His entire specious and disingenuous piece for the Graun, with its shallow labelling, straw men arguments and mischievous aim of dismissing Labour for doing more than any other post-Thatcherite government to check, if not reverse income inequality can be seen either as his finally going fully native with the Conservatives or what has always been his true politics rising to the surface. It's also not as if he's the only Lib Dem wrestling with themselves over accusations of betrayal; Vince Cable has been through similar mental gymnastics on tuition fees.

This next point might then seem counter-intuitive: Labour should take up the mantle of fully supporting the yes campaign in the alternative vote referendum. It's true that such a position could well have the side effect of propping up the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, should the vote be won whereas at the moment it looks like it could go either way. After all, the AV referendum is the one key thing that the Lib Dems can hold out to its supporters as being achieved which is completely untainted by other deals done on policy. If Ed Miliband is serious though about changing Labour and securing the party's future under a new generation then a more pluralistic politics is the cornerstone of that, and with so many disgruntled Lib Dem voters out there that supported the party's pre-coalition policies very little will do more to attract them than an act which goes beyond narrow party self-interest. The centre-left is wide open for Labour to move into; it would be beyond foolish to not do so.

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