Ed Miliband has a happy knack of saying the right thing a little while before anyone else. He was on the money with predatory capitalism, he got the first blows in on News International while the government was still running scared, and now predistribution – altering the way the market treats the poorest instead of adjusting the tax and benefit system to redistribute wealth – is getting positive press on the left and the right, even if it’s got him negative attention for that ridiculous name. He really should have put some New Labour spin on that one, especially if he wants people to stop thinking he’s nothing more than a Westminster-village policy wonk.
“Predistribution” is not going to win Labour the next election if Miliband decides to sell it under that banner. This is unfortunate, because it could be a genuine game changer. It builds upon one of the key planks of his leadership campaign – a living wage – and advocates, in essence, rigging the market in favour of the poor. Theoretically, such a policy could win votes on the left, as a progressive way of helping those who are struggling, and on the right, as a way of promoting work not welfare through the private sector rather than the taxation system.
The general assumption is that Labour will attract the vast majority of the working poor at the next election, as they tend to do. The party will not really have to confront its niggling issues over law and order, immigration and Europe if the economy is the key battleground in 2015. All they will have to do is say to the electorate, “Look, you’re no better off now than you were five years ago, and the Tories favour the rich,” and they will be back in power relatively easily. This is why Miliband hasn’t really said a great deal in opposition – he hasn’t had to. Why flood the public with a vast amount of policy announcements when you’ve got a twelve point lead in the polls and the electoral system is rigged on your behalf?
The idea that Miliband can coast to Number 10, however, is flawed. The poll lead is soft, as Labour insiders constantly tell reporters (off the record, of course). It was hacked into with remarkable ease when Cameron “vetoed” the EU treaty. The party leadership must worry that this could happen again – hence Miliband’s pre-conference attempts to seize the economic initiative. What is positive, however, is that this weakness seems to have been recognised by the leader. One of the more impressive things about Ed Miliband’s leadership is his insistence on playing the long game. He seems to understand, at least to a greater extent than his predecessors, that politics is not purely a thirty-second sound-bite business. His recent interview with the New Statesman showed his thoughtfulness, his calm, well-reasoned assessments of where the political land lies at present, and where it is likely to be in the future – a welcome change to the vacuous Cameron and the reactive nature of both Blair and Brown.
Labour absolutely must dominate the economic argument in order to win power next time around. It is the only game in town. The next election simply will not be about any other issue. Pounds in pockets is where Labour will win power. Predistribution, coupled with attacks on predatory capitalism, show Miliband’s priorities are in the right place – paying workers fairly, rewarding enterprise but not at the cost of corporate responsibility. It is half of a good argument. It needs to be followed by the biggest, most complicated, but most important task any prospective government shall take on – a comprehensive reform of the tax system. Revenues are falling and the taxes Britain has are targeting the wrong people. VAT is profoundly unfair, as are the loopholes and alterations that favour the mega-rich. Nick Clegg’s wealth tax can’t be dismissed as irrelevant simply because the man suggesting it is irrelevant. If Miliband is a true radical, he and Ed Balls need to formulate a plan to rip the tax system apart and rebuild it in favour of those who work for others as well as themselves, or he will be left adrift in a sea of half-hearted reforms and responses to a financial crisis which requires the economic bravery and innovation that this country has sorely lacked for the past twenty years.
Labour Party HQ- The Lud
Ed Miliband Department of Energy