Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has been in charge of drafting Labour’s manifesto since 2007. So he has had a long time to get it right. Over the weekend Miliband claimed in a Guardian interview that the manifesto will prove Labour remains best qualified to lead ‘the next phase of national renewal" and that it "will reform both the market and the state" and help “rebuild our politics”. This is good, classic New Labour stuff – ‘renewal’ ‘rebuild’ and ‘reform’ all evoke memories of 1997.
However, the elements Miliband chose to highlight suggest a shift in emphasis since then, with some signals of a change of direction - and one that might embarrass at least one leading member of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet. It also poses a key question about the future of one of New Labour’s central policies.
The manifesto will apparently introduce a People’s Bank to help rebuild what Miliband described as the ‘fabric of communities’. The Bank will be linked to the growing number of co-operative credit unions across the country that help the poor borrow money on favourable terms. The Bank will be accessed through Britain’s 12,000 Post Office branches. This marks a decisive change in direction for the Post Office under Labour, giving it a greater public service role than implied by Peter Mandelson’s on-off-on-off attempts to part-privatise it since he became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in 1998. Indeed during Labour’s time in office at least 4,000 post offices have closed in the face of much public opposition.
Miliband also claims the manifesto will include a ‘radical’ increase in the minimum wage. It currently stands at £5.80 but campaigners like London Citizens want it increased to £7.60. Miliband was coy about quite how high it might go, and he was not pressed on how this marked another change in direction from when the measure was first introduced in 1999. Many employers – and the Conservatives – claimed a minimum wage would bring disastrous economic consequences. Blair of course wanted to appease business but he also wanted to adhere to one of the party’s few pledges that favoured the trade unions. This meant ripping up what had been Labour’s stance under John Smith – a minimum wage set 50% of male median earnings initially, rising to two-thirds over time – and instead establishing an Independent Low Pay Commission, to decide on the rate, which led to complaints that it was set too low. The minister responsible was – maybe you have guessed? - Peter Mandelson. In his Guardian interview, Miliband was not pressed on how Labour will increase the minimum wage, given that it is set not by Government but by the LPC. Is his interview a sign that Labour intends to remove the LPC and allow government directly to set the minimum wage?
The problem for Labour in proposing ‘radical’ change, as Miliband claims the manifesto will do, is that skeptics will ask: why has it taken you till now? Shoring up the ‘traditional’ Labour vote, making sure they turn out come polling day, is one likely explanation of Miliband’s spinning of the manifesto. But there might be another. Miliband employed a number of caveats during the interview: there were lots of ifs, mights and maybes. The manifesto is still in a state of flux: the Prime Minister and Lord Mandelson have yet to approve it. It is more than possible that when they do, caution will reign and some of Miliband’s promised ‘radicalism’ watered down. In talking to the Guardian, Miliband might, then, have been doing two things. Boosting Labour’s message in advance of the imminent election campaign while also sending a signal to what remains of the party’s members. Should Labour lose and Brown fall on his sword, it would be very useful for someone spoken of as a likely leadership candidate – as the BBC’s Michael Crick has done recently to be the man known to have fought for a ‘radical’ manifesto.
Professor Steven Fielding