By focusing on cuts and budgets, we miss the real aims behind the Labour manifesto

15th April, 2015 8:29 am

At the launch of his manifesto, Ed Miliband said every pledge contained within was properly costed and promised every Labour budget would cut the deficit. In response, George Monbiot says it will, “electrify anyone who is aroused by the high wild cry of accountancy”. I have some sympathy for his point but I also have a suggestion for my lefty colleagues: look beyond the campaign rhetoric.

Ed Miliband manifesto

It’s startling that many commentators including Monbiot do great work by digging into important stories, but pay only superficial attention to what Miliband is actually proposing. It’s bad enough to claim that Labour and Tory ‘austerity’ is the same, but in this case we are missing the wood for the trees.

To argue over the level of cuts Labour are proposing misses the more important bigger picture: Miliband’s case for being Prime Minister isn’t about austerity, it’s about changing how the economy works for people. That is the standard we should judge the manifesto on. If even the BBC’s Robert Peston can recognise the “sheer scale of Miliband’s repositioning”, why can’t Monbiot and others?

The cynics won’t admit it but this is the boldest Labour manifesto in over a generation. Not even Neil Kinnock had the political courage to challenge the Thatcherite consensus. Miliband’s real aim has always been to transform the world of work.

So, in the spirit of arousing people with a wild cry, here are some additional pledges from the Labour manifesto:

  • Ban MPs from holding paid directorships and consultancies.
  • Require Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to produce publicly available registries of real owners of companies based there.
  • Abolish the employment tribunal fee system.
  • Require employee representation on pay committees
  • Require large companies to publish data on their gender pay gap.
  • End the automatic presumption that outsourcing is the right approach.
  • Consider how to support employee buy-outs when businesses are being sold.
  • Double paid paternity leave for fathers.
  • Introduce tougher penalties for tax abuse and end unfair tax breaks used by hedge funds.
  • Abolish the loophole that allows firms to undercut permanent staff by using agency workers on lower pay.
  • Strengthen rules protecting small firms against late payment.
  • Give tax rebates to businesses who sign up to paying the Living Wage and require PLCs to report on whether or not they pay it.
  • Reform corporate governance so companies don’t have to focus on share price over long-term growth.

As a shadow minister said to me last week, the most significant part of the manifesto is the one focused on Britain’s workplaces. But in all the media coverage and debate over cuts, it hasn’t had the attention it deserves. Read that if you want to understand Labour thinking.

Arguably, even this doesn’t go far enough. I could probably come up with many more proposals to include in it. But unlike the Green party, Labour also has to appeal to a significant group of voters who think, wrongly, that Labour over-spent during its time in power and that it crashed the economy. Telling them that they’re wrong is neither easy nor an effective use of limited time. So we are left not in an ideal world, but a place that even John McDonnell MP is comfortable with.

But it’s worth pointing out, again, that not long after Miliband became leader, his chief strategist Stewart Wood wrote that neo-liberalism was the ‘god that failed’ Britain.

Despite the fierce opposition, not just from the press, big business and some Blairites, Miliband wants to create a new post-Thatcherite settlement for Britain. The manifesto clearly signals that intent. It’s just a shame his opponents seem to recognise this much better than some on the left.

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