I wrote this for the Leeds University student magazine Lippy.
There’s been much written about the nasality of his voice, but not a lot on the quite radical nature of Ed Miliband’s politics. For a long time Britain’s political elite has given scant regard to whom our largely unrestrained capitalism is rewarding. The assumption has been that it helps us all, but we are witnessing the world economy teetering on the edge of recession, and the richest and wealthiest seem to be escaping the squeezed living standards everyone else is suffering. Amidst this Ed Miliband has claimed that ‘in every generation, there comes a moment when we need to change the way we do things. This is one of those moments.’1 He believes the Labour Party needs to offer new solutions to meet the problems Britain face.
Miliband is armed with two reasons for proposing a changed Labour Party. Firstly, New Labour, under Blair and Brown, became unpopular; its raison d’etre was to win elections but this came to an ignominious end at the 2010 General Election. Miliband thinks he will have to look beyond New Labour to win back power. Secondly, Britain’s neo-liberal economic order doesn’t seem to be serving the people. The current mix of free markets, gaping inequality and light regulation is not delivering. Is there an alternative? Ed Miliband believes he has one.
It is Miliband’s hope that he can regenerate the Labour party both to win voters and to solve underlying problems Britain face. Since the 1970s there have been two clear demonstrations of successful regenerations of political parties. One example being the actions of Margaret Thatcher, who radically changed her party because she believed only neo liberal economics, could save Britain from its economic problems. The other example is the regeneration Labour underwent in the 1980s and 90s when Kinnock, Smith and ultimately Blair, modernised and moderated their party, to win back public support.
In the 1970s, like today, there was a perception that Britain wasn’t working. It ended in the infamous ‘Winter of Discontent’, in which many public sector workers, including refuse collectors and gravediggers, went on strike. As the rubbish and coffins piled up, combined with high inflation and unemployment, the Labour government was unsurprisingly unpopular. Thatcher believed she had a solution, and it flied in the face of the status quo. Even Conservative leaders like Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath had accepted the post-war economic consensus, but it seemed to be crumbling amidst crisis. Thatcher’s vision for Britain was very different. It was of a Britain with lower tax rates, light regulation and weaker trade unions, and this framework has survived ever since. The Conservative Party changed because Thatcher believed the country required new solutions. Although Miliband may not envisage as far reaching changes as Thatcher, he is a leader in the mould of Thatcher, in the sense that he is does not accept the economic status quo.
The Labour Party in the 80s and 90s engaged in political regeneration for a different reason. After Thatcher’s victory in 1979, Labour moved leftwards under Michael Foot, but this proved unelectable. After writing a manifesto described as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ and plummeting to 27.6% in the 1983 General Election, Labour realised it had to gain the centre ground. Neil Kinnock sieved the party of its ultra left tendencies and removed its most left wing and unpopular policies like unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The Labour Party was renewing itself. This change was complete with the ascension of Tony Blair and New Labour. New Labour accepted the framework Thatcher laid out; privatised industries, the banking sector unregulated and trade unions relatively powerless. They accepted it, because they believed Labour could only win elections if it moved to the right, and they also believed Thatcher’s economic changes worked. The system generated a lot of wealth, and the government was able to redistribute some of it to the worst off. The system appeared sustainable and desirable. As Peter Mandelson put it in 1998, New Labour “are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.”2
Although Miliband and his team wish to change Britain’s economy because he believes it’s what Britain needs, he also feels Labour must win back supporters who grew disillusioned with New Labour. He believes the public are sceptical of current inequalities and the way bankers enjoy large bonuses. A recent biography explains how Miliband’s political positions ‘reflect a distinct and different ideology to both Blair and Brown but they are based on Ed’s robust analysis of what Labour needs to do in order to win back voters and be re-elected.’3
Although Miliband has not announced many concrete policies there are indications of how he differs to New Labour. Miliband pinpoints ‘a system of irresponsible, predatory capitalism’ as the cause of our economic woes. British capitalism needs to be altered and geared towards ‘productive, responsible behaviour which benefits business and most people in the long term’. 4 One of his policies is breaking up the largest energy companies to drive prices down.
Whether Miliband will be successful in his ambitions for the Labour Party depends on whether the current system continues failing. The unpopularity of the Coalition is due to a low level of growth, high unemployment and public sector cuts. Miliband’s best bet for successfully regenerating his party is for the Conservatives to stagnate the economy to an election defeat.
However, some commentators believe Miliband’s move to the left will prove unpopular. The reason New Labour was invented is because a more left wing Labour party seemed unelectable. They believe this is still the case and the British public will dismiss Miliband’s vision of restrained capitalism. They believe the name ‘Red Ed’ will hang around the head of this reformer and drag him to electoral defeat. To overcome this Miliband has to show he is not arguing for a return to socialism, but a more responsible capitalism. He will also have to demonstrate to the public that Labour can be trusted on the economy. This could be the most difficult feat for him.
All in all, Miliband is showcasing ‘a clear grasp of our national predicament’.5 He is offering a real political change. Winning over the electorate will be the tough part, but as history proves, game changing Party leaders can succeed.
3 Mehdi Hasan and James MacIntyre Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader (London: Biteback Publishing 2011) p. 288