Lessons from the Fabians: The problems run deeper than Ed

Saturday saw the annual Fabian Conference take place and in amongst the panel sessions and policy discussions, a few important insights into the state of the Labour Party became clear.

The day kicked off with a predictably unremarkable speech from Ed Miliband, with the standard lines on ‘the cost of living crisis,’ the ‘evil’ Tories and the poorly chosen jokes. Considering the number of speeches delivered in the last few weeks, it is perhaps unsurprising that he had nothing new to say.

Nevertheless, comments made about Labour activists being told to avoid the economy on the doorstep, gave the right wing press the ammunition they needed to knock him down. Combined with a frontpage from The Mail  which focused on the former Labour Mayor of Doncaster’s revelations that Miliband knew that the economy was  “going to fall off a cliff” in 2007 and urged for a snap election before it did.

The negative coverage Miliband is receiving may be a convenient excuse for Labour supporters if their party loses in May but Saturday’s conference revealed much deeper underlying issues that the party needs to address.

A panel event on Labour’s relationship with business was surprisingly upbeat. On the panel, arch-Blairite Lord Adonis said Labour’s policies on the EU, housing and infrastructure are pulling business support to the Party. However when asked why Labour does not have the ties and donations from business as the Conservatives do, Lord Adonis claimed that there is perhaps a personal/business political divide amongst business owners. In short, as business owners are wealthy, they are personally concerned with proposals for the Mansion Tax and increases to the highest income tax band. Not Labour’s proposals to intervene in energy, housing, and banking markets? Not Miliband’s calling for an end to ‘predatory capitalism’? Nor that most business leaders suspect that Ed simply doesn’t understand the way business works? No, according to Labour’s current analysis, it’s their pure self-interest.

Labour’s relationship with business is a concern, with the trade unions currently collectively responsible for around 60% of Labour Party funding. Under Blair, when private donations were at the highest in the party’s history, the unions donated a third of the total. Reports now suggest that Conservative funding for the General Election now outmatches Labour’s by three to one. Without getting business back on side Labour will have problems. But when even Lord Adonis dismisses concerns, it is difficult to see what the remedy will be.

More concerns emerged around the threat of the Greens and UKIP. Since its launch three months ago, Labour’s anti-Green strategy by Sadiq Khan has completely backfired. Nationally the Greens are now regularly polling ahead of the Lib Dems and the Green’s membership now outstrips both the Lib Dems and UKIP. The line of ‘vote Green, get Cameron,’ which Sadiq Khan extolled on Saturday, is not working. Those considering going Green do not see much difference between Labour and the Conservatives and the rise of coalition politics demonstrates that voting for a minor party is not a waste.

UKIP’s future was also debated with the author of Revolt on the Right Matthew Goodwin arguing that UKIP will continue to appeal to Labour’s heartland in the North, he suggested that if UKIP turns to the left and were to support trade tariffs, Labour would find that UKIP could develop into a French Front National size problem. How Labour should respond to this threat remains unclear and was a divisive issue in the party’s ranks.

The Fabian Conference confirmed that Labour’s problems are deeper than Miliband. With the Party struggling to answer fundamental questions about how it tackles both its dire relationship with the business community and the rising threat of smaller parties, it needs concrete solutions and a strategy which seem to be lacking.

Lora Shopova