May in meltdown

First published on Progress Online for The Last Word

May’s weakness exposed, leadership in local government and an impressive start for Open Labour – Progress director Richard Angell has this week’s Last Word

The Tories in 2015 told Britain not to vote Labour because Ed Miliband would be a disaster for the economy and he would be pushed around by Nicola Sturgeon. If it was not for the fact that the National Health Service was in crisis and the government’s only idea for improving schools is to bring back grammars, you might have to pinch yourself to remember who won. 

The morning after Sturgeon ambushed the country and announced her intention to legislate for a second referendum on Scottish independence, the Times ran with a government source saying: ‘This timing is completely unacceptable … it would be irresponsible to agree to it and we won’t.’ If half of what the first minister said about being kept in the dark about how Brexit might proceed is true, the fault in many ways lies with Theresa May and her operation in No 10. 

May likes to maintain that her ‘thoughtful’ style is a strength and shows that she is considered. It is anything but. The weakness of No 10 and her inability to know her own mind is why so much of Brexit is still unclear and why she cannot show her own colleagues, let alone parliament or the devolved administrations, the respect and consideration they deserve. 

The unelected prime minister is turning out to be not just been a disaster for Labour voters – as expected – but a disaster for the country. Her weakness allows Sturgeon to press her advantage. The Brexiteer backbenchers push her around in the 1992 committee. Yvette Cooper at prime minister’s questions showed how it can be done from the opposition benches. She did in one question what Jeremy Corbyn could not in six. Considering the chancellor had U-turned on the flagship reform in his budget – while promising not to plug the black hole – the open goal could hardly get any wider.

100 innovations by Labour in power

Nothing good ever arrives in the post these days – it only ever seems to be bills. However, this week, I reviewed a booklet that made me do a double-take, it was called 100 innovations by Labour in power. But we feel so far from power.

In reality across the land Labour administrations are credible, trusted with whole economies, big budgets and pubic services and they are transforming lives for the better. More importantly, they are doing us proud.

Chair of the Local Government Association Labour group, Nick Forbes, says in his forward, ‘Right now local government face challenges that are both unprecedented and multifaceted.’ Quite an understatement. But as you keep reading you do not find doom and gloom, nor victimhood and whining – but Labour councils creating credit unions, reducing hiomelessness, helping employers take on more staff, improving health care and building houses. If you do not believe me, take a read for yourself.

In my local party meeting someone took the unusual step of thanking our local councillors for the work they do, recognising that in many ways they are taking a bullet for all of us not able to take on public service at this time and they do it in the hardest of circumstances. But they should be thanked and deserve to stand tall, because they are the only people right now delivering on Labour’s historic mission. For that we applaud them.

Another missed opportunity 

You might have missed it. Most did. Ed Miliband spoke at Open Labour’s inaugural conference last Saturday. 

He gave a keynote speech – you can listen here – of just 20 minutes or so and spoke almost entirely about Brexit. The room was full with Miliband’s cadre: a home crowd, if you will. It was incumbent on him to use this opportunity to do as he has long promised and set out why he believed he lost the 2015 general election. An election, for the record, that was winnable for both Labour and for Miliband the younger. He ducked it again. 

Paul Mason, not someone I like to quote often, wrote over the summer of Corbyn’s predecessor:

Not Ed Miliband, nor any of those around him, have bothered to give an account of why Labour failed in 2015. But the [Blairites] have. For [them] the failure of 2015 happened because Miliband was too leftwing. Because he failed to reach out to the mythical ‘centre’ of politics.

Corbyn’s team have an analysis about Miliband being too ‘pro-austerity’ – only really fair to say about Miliband’s 11th hour conversion to a ‘fiscal responsibility lock’ commitment in the Labour manifesto, launched too late because most of the party’s leaflets and all of its free post had already gone to print. Corbyn, Mason and the hard-left leadership like to see themselves as the break in the line of New Labour leaders. This is not true; there was only one. Corbyn is the logical extension of Miliband’s five years of anti-Iraq, pro-Occupy movement, ‘predators and producers’ leadership.

Miliband still owes it to his own supporters and the wider Labour family to give his account of the shortcoming. More importantly, why it ended in failure, a majority Tory government and Corbyn as his successor. Even if he is wrong – I can imagine New Labour and Blair getting most of the blame – it is a position that could be interrogated. At the moment all we hear is a choruses of ‘but I was right about inequality’. All the public hears is that he thinks they were wrong. 

We have had the Beckett report, but that was barely worth the paper it was written on. It is time Miliband put his cards on the table. 

But Open Labour should not be judged on the poor performance of their intellectual figurehead. The conference was brimming with ideas. Trevor Fisher on Labour Uncut gives it a good review. It voted – by a small margin I am told, but nonetheless – to support the creation of an English Labour party. 

Their next job is to define their own edges and be pro their own soft-left agenda. 

Owen Jones and Ellie Mae O’Hagan – as great as they are and as brave as they have been for ditching Corbyn – are not soft-left and have not ditched Corbynism. They might be backing – if not running – Clive Lewis’ leadership campaign, but he is not soft-left either. He might have better presentational ability but he has the same politics as Corbyn and Momentum. The very politics that was rejected by voters in Copeland. In his defence he is at least pro-European. 

I personally agree with Jade Azim, the soft-left needs a ‘distinct identity’. To date it looks to have a ‘not too hot, not too cold’ Goldilocks approach. It is not enough to not be the ‘Blairites’ nor the ‘Corbynites’, they have to be for something. Last Saturday, minus Miliband, was an impressive start. 

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