Ed Miliband needs to tell Britain what he’s really thinking—if he knowsby Jonathan Derbyshire / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
The 10 brains of Edwardian Labour
In late July, on the hottest day of the year, a couple of hundred Labour Party members, trade unionists and local authority workers crammed into a stifling third-floor room at the Coin Street Neighbourhood Centre, just down the road from Waterloo station in London. They were there to hear Ed Miliband explain proposed changes to the party’s relationship with the unions. This was his response to the debacle in the Scottish constituency of Falkirk, where, it was alleged, the Unite union had tried to rig the contest to select a parliamentary candidate.
Miliband, tieless and speaking without notes, said the proposal to end the automatic affiliation of some three million trade union members to the Labour Party was “historic.” This was a chance, he declared, to turn Labour into a “genuinely 21st-century party.” For too long, the Labour leader went on, ordinary trade unionists “have felt that one side in politics, the Tories, writes them off, and the other side, Labour, takes them for granted. Now we as a Labour Party will have a direct interest in saying to those working people, ‘We can’t take you for granted.’ We’ve got to reach out and persuade them to become affiliated members of our party.” This was stirring stuff, and a reminder that, at close quarters, Miliband does revivalist fervour with a flair that belies the popular image of him as a man more at home in the seminar room than on the soapbox.
It remains a source of frustration to many sympathetic observers that he and his handlers have not worked out how to project these qualities on a wider stage—something confirmed by the YouGov poll commissioned this month by Prospect which shows that Miliband’s personal ratings remain stubbornly low. His biographer, the journalist Mehdi Hasan, tells me he thinks the Labour leader is “best when he’s himself, authentic, unmediated, speaking from the heart. We saw that during the phone hacking scandal—perhaps the high point of his three-year leadership of the opposition—and in his response to the ‘omnishambles’ budget in 2012. But he doesn’t get many opportunities to do so.”
In defending Miliband in this way, however, Hasan points to a more profound problem—not just with the way Miliband conveys his message, but with the message itself. The Labour leader has failed to turn the temporary impetus created by his occasional attacks of boldness into sustained momentum. There has been some suggestive rhetoric—on “responsible capitalism” and the need to tackle “vested interests,” whether these are unaccountable media organisations, unreformed trade unions or utility companies charging eye-gouging prices— but little consistency and scant policy detail. His advisers urge sceptics to wait until his conference speech in late September; that will show whether he doesn’t know what he wants to say or has simply been holding back from saying it until he judges the time is right. In the meantime, the meaning of Milibandism remains elusive.
A couple of weeks after the Coin Street speech, by which time the leader was on holiday in France and the party machine wound down for the summer, Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham told the Guardian that Labour needed to “shout louder.” Voters don’t like the coalition, he said, but they aren’t yet convinced that Labour “has the answers.” Burnham, a minister in the previous government, was following other Labour MPs in complaining publicly about the appearance of lassitude and drift. The former whip Graham Stringer worried about the “deafening silence” coming from the top of the party, while George Mudie, a member of the Treasury Select Committee, asked: “Do you know, because I don’t, our position on welfare, do you know our position on education, do you know our genuine position on how we’d run the health service?”
I put these charges to Miliband’s closest adviser, Stewart Wood, a former politics tutor at Oxford turned Shadow Minister Without Portfolio. “We have way more policy than any other opposition in the history of modern politics,” he says. It is simply too early in the electoral cycle, he implies, for Labour to show its hand. What about the suggestion, often made sotto voce by impatient backbenchers, that too many of Miliband’s inner circle are intellectuals more interested in political philosophy than policy? Wood is unrepentant. “We are unashamedly in the business of ideas. You cannot come up with policy and then think about the ideas afterwards. You have not to be ashamed of knowing your approach, of knowing what kind of country you want.”
Wood is not the only ex-academic in Miliband’s team. There is a coterie of wonkish 40- and early 50-something men, with strikingly similar educational and professional backgrounds, advising the Labour leader. The speechwriter Marc Stears recently left a lectureship in politics at Oxford to work for Miliband full time, and Jon Cruddas, the former deputy leadership candidate now in charge of Labour’s policy review, has a PhD in industrial relations and “value theory.” Cruddas’s principal collaborator in the review is the cultural theorist Jonathan Rutherford, whom someone familiar with the operation described to me as “the hidden secret of the whole thing.”
Last year, Stears published an essay entitled “The Personal Politics of Ed Miliband,” in which he attempted to map the political journey taken by an “efficient administrator of New Labour’s redistribution by stealth who realised people needed to be persuaded to change their minds and behaviour.” In government, Stears wrote, Miliband had become increasingly uncomfortable with a market research socialism that fetishised focus groups and opinion polls (see Clare Short, p14). “[H]e announced a desire to shape a new public opinion… rather than to follow established orthodoxy.”
You hear this sort of thing a lot when you talk to members of Miliband’s team—that their man has it in him to be a “transformative” leader, an Attlee or a Thatcher, a “moral” rather than a “mechanical” reformer, to borrow a distinction made by the historian Peter Clarke. And this entails, they say, a politics of persuasion rather than one of technocratic tinkering in which “the man in Whitehall knows best”; it also requires a very different kind of party from the hollowed-out husk that Labour had become by the fag-end of the last government. Genuine change, so the argument goes, is not something done to people, but with them.
That is certainly the view of Arnie Graf, a veteran American community organiser and one-time confidant of the young Barack Obama. Miliband has entrusted Graf, along with party General Secretary Iain McNicol, with the task of revivifying a grassroots operation that until recently was vestigial in many areas, former Labour strongholds among them. He has been working with constituency parties, connecting them with local campaigners on issues such as the living wage and credit unions. And while Graf was helping to transform Labour’s “groundgame,” in April Matthew McGregor, Obama’s “digital attack dog” during the 2012 US presidential campaign, was appointed to do a similar online job for Labour in 2015.
Launching the policy review back in February, Cruddas praised the work being done by McNicol and Graf. Their “quiet revolution” could, he suggested, turn out to be “the modern equivalent of the party reformation supplied by Tony Blair with the changes to Clause IV.” As it happened, Miliband’s “Clause IV moment” arrived rather more quickly than Cruddas had anticipated, in the form of the argument over union affiliation—and it’s potentially even more significant than Blair’s abandonment of Labour’s formal commitment to public ownership, which was largely a matter of publicly ratifying an accommodation with the post-Thatcher economic settlement that, by the early 1990s, the party had already made.
Miliband didn’t seek to prove his mettle with a set-piece confrontation with the unions (he has ignored the
section of the Blair playbook that recommends picking a fight with your own side). Indeed, in the Coin Street speech he admitted that the changes had been “provoked… by some of the problems that we had.” But making party affiliation for union members a matter of choice rather than fiat in fact fits rather neatly with the pitch he is trying to make for what Stears calls a “democratic, open-minded and engaging politics.” Miliband spoke of a party rooted once again “in the lives of working people” and which takes seriously “workplace” issues—zero-hours contracts, the behaviour of recruitment agencies, firms not paying the minimum wage—that “have not been central enough to our politics in the last 10 to 15 years.”
Later, in response to a question about whether Labour intended to turn Britain into a “coordinated market economy,” he resisted the temptation to indulge his inner wonk (he would have recognised the allusion to the work of the economist, and old Miliband family friend, David Soskice) and returned instead to the theme of “fairness in the workplace,” observing that “flexibility” is often a euphemism for something “nasty [and] brutish.” That pivot towards the politics of work, low pay and living standards elicited more appreciative murmurs than almost anything else Miliband said that evening. That suggests that this might be fertile territory for his party in an era of real-wage stagnation, “under-employment” and housing shortages.
Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of the Fabian Society and an active participant in these discussions, agrees that Labour is right to want the next general election to be about living standards, but he worries that it doesn’t yet seem to have a detailed policy agenda to match its ambitions. “They would love to be fighting on this territory, although they will need a better policy offer,” he tells me. “I’m always at meetings with activists who say, ‘We haven’t got anything to say on the doorstep.’ There’s a frustration that we want something positive and different to tell people.
At the beginning of the year, Cruddas said the policy review would include “debates about political philosophy, political economy and the condition of Britain,” as well as “discussions of specific policy priorities.” Some, like Harrop, argue there has been a little too much philosophy and not enough policy. Cruddas, though, insists that the review is unfolding as Miliband had intended. “The first phase is now complete,” he says. “Last autumn, we set up three shadow cabinet review groups each chaired by the leader covering economics, social policy and political renewal, and commissioned 21 pieces of work across the three groups. Some of the work has entered the public domain, although much has been banked.”
Even if one grants Stewart Wood’s point that it is too early to announce policies, Labour still has to show whether it has a clear framework within which it can develop them. In the run-up to the 1997 general election the party had an overarching vision that helped voters to understand what it would do in office. It would keep the fundamental structures of the Thatcher settlement in place, but humanise them. This meant, on the one hand, embracing orthodox macroeconomic policy and globalisation and, on the other, active social policy (including measures to reduce child poverty and improve poor neighbourhoods) and the rehabilitation of public services. Today Labour has the “One Nation” theme which Miliband unveiled in his 2012 party conference speech and which is shaping the policy review (the three “shadow cabinet review groups” Cruddas refers to are on the “One Nation Economy,” “One Nation Society” and “One Nation Politics”).
Patrick Diamond, a member of the Number 10 policy unit during the Blair years and now senior research fellow at the think tank Policy Network, is not convinced that this is much help in answering the question of what Labour stands for. “The One Nation frame takes you somewhere,” he says, “because it’s about saying ‘We’re going to govern for the whole country, we’re going to maintain a cross-party coalition’—I think that’s a useful starting point. But it doesn’t really tell you much more than that about what Labour’s position is really going to be on social and economic policy.”
Diamond also points out that there is a more fundamental difficulty for Labour here, one that it is still wrestling with. “There’s an interesting juxtaposition between trying to move to a more radical space and accepting that, in economic terms, a future Labour government would be very constrained in what it could do.” It’s a question that I heard a member of the audience at Coin Street whisper to her neighbour while we waited for Miliband to appear: “How can we have socialism without money?” Or, as Stewart Wood has put it: “What does it mean to be on the left in tough economic times?”—when success can’t be measured, as it arguably has been in the past, simply by levels of public spending.
The Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls acknowledged this problem when setting out the exacting fiscal constraints under which the next Labour government would operate in a major speech in June. He warned his shadow cabinet colleagues not to make any uncosted spending commitments and instead to “start planning now for what will be a very tough inheritance in 2015.” (He did, however, leave some room for manoeuvre on capital spending, noting that the International Monetary Fund had recommended that the UK bring forward infrastructure spending to stimulate growth.)
Mindful of the fiscal challenge, Labour has been exploring ways of shifting spending priorities (making “switch spends” in the policymakers’ jargon) to boost employment (for example, by reallocating spending on child benefit or child tax credit to high-quality childcare). As well as attempting to reassure voters that they would not be profligate, Balls and Miliband have begun to emphasise the burden that is placed on the public finances by stagnant or falling wages. They have made it clear that Labour will seek to address the long-term causes of high levels of spending on benefits and tax, too—Wood, in particular, is obsessed with the declining share of GDP going to wages relative to profit.
Miliband developed these themes in a speech he gave on social security a few days after Balls’s on the economy. As well as endorsing a cap on overall benefits, he offered a mea culpa for the failings of New Labour. “The last Labour government… was right to provide tax credits for those in work. But we didn’t do enough to tackle Britain’s low-wage economy that just leaves the taxpayer facing greater and greater costs subsidising employers.” Wood, who worked in the Treasury when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, is similarly candid. “Part of the lesson of Labour’s time in government is that there was an aggregate good health of the economy which masked distributional pain. We had all felt that the top 60 or 70 per cent were doing well for 10 years, but it turned out they weren’t. And that was quite a shock for a lot of people in the Labour Party.”
Wood has written that “what Britain needs is a supply-side revolution from the left”—by which he means far-reaching reforms that would deal in a more radical way than New Labour ever dared with the structure of market outcomes. Miliband is considering a range of policies—including a living wage, worker representation on remuneration committees and greater vocational training—designed to rewrite the rules under which the market operates and to change the way it distributes its rewards in the first place; in other words, before the state steps in to collect taxes and distribute benefits. “Redistribution will always remain necessary,” Miliband said in a speech in September last year. “But we’ve learned that it’s not enough… We need to care about predistribution as well as redistribution.”
“Predistribution” was never a term likely to strike a chord with voters—Neil O’Brien, now an adviser to George Osborne, described it as “the sort of stupid made-up word that only a policy wonk could love”—and Miliband stopped using it after he was ridiculed at Prime Minister’s Questions by David Cameron for doing so. Nevertheless, to the extent that Miliband and those close to him have a set of reasonably well-developed ideas about how left-of-centre governments can shape economic outcomes without direct taxation and spending, “predistribution” remains a useful portmanteau term for them. And the influence on Labour’s thinking of the American academic who coined it, Jacob Hacker, remains strong. When I spoke to Hacker on the phone from Yale, where he is a professor in the department of political science, he told me he’d talked to Miliband several times.
Hacker argues that governments make markets, which flourish in specific contexts that vary significantly from country to country. Germany, for instance, is characterised by cooperation among businesses in certain sectors and “co-determination” or collaboration between management and employees. That is very different from Britain or America. Miliband’s notion of a “responsible capitalism” in which the proceeds of growth are more widely shared implies transformation on a grand scale. However, as Andrew Harrop points out, “the scale of the change people on the left want to see is totally disproportionate to the policy tools that are being discussed. Even things like the living wage, which is quite a radical policy in a UK historical context, doesn’t make a great deal of difference on its own. You need to have 40 or 50 quite big policies to achieve the kind of change in the distribution of market outcomes that [Miliband is talking about].”
It is not a good sign for Miliband that some in the party have begun to compare him to Gordon Brown. Shortly before becoming Prime Minister in 2007, Brown issued a number of grandiose promissory notes hinting at a decisive
break with the statecraft of his predecessor. None of them was ever redeemed in the form of concrete policy once he had taken office.
Will things be different with Miliband? There is certainly ample evidence of new thinking about policy in and around his team, and there is no reason to disbelieve Cruddas and Wood when they say that there are policies in the bank, some of which will be unveiled at the party conference in the autumn. It is less certain whether Miliband himself is ready to abandon the ingrained habits of Brownite caution and embrace the kind of radical vision that some in the party are urging on him. Only he can answer that question. If his “transformative” ambitions are genuine, then he will have to show it soon—preferably in his speech in Brighton. His party and the voters are waiting.
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