Approaching the first anniversary of his election as Labour leader, a confident Ed Miliband tells Robert Philpot and Richard Angell from Progress in the United Kingdom, how he is occupying Britain’s new centre-ground and why he is following his own instincts.
Ed Miliband does not like comparisons. He will not, for instance, be drawn on a briefing given to the Spectator earlier this summer in which readers were told that the Labour leader had ‘an unlikely new role model’ – Margaret Thatcher. ‘He has long been intrigued by how the Iron Lady transformed her country – and with it, the notion of the centre-ground of British politics,’ reported the rightwing weekly; ‘He aspires to do the same.’
‘Look,’ responds Miliband, ‘I’m not going to compare myself to anyone. I think it is better to speak for yourself.’ But if he is not enthusiastic, for understandable reasons, to flesh out this sentiment further, Miliband is also not much keener to divulge which of his Labour predecessors he most identifies with.
‘I am not sure comparisons are a good thing,’ he suggests, ‘I’m going to do this my way. And I think it is probably unfair to [my] predecessors, it is probably unfair to me. You have just got to do the right thing as you see it and follow your instincts.’
‘Following his instincts’ has got Miliband a long way. From outside bet to a hair’s-breadth victory over the favourite, his brother David, in Labour’s leadership contest last summer. This summer he has apparently pulled off an even more unlikely win: gambling that the public revulsion over the revelations about the hacking of the phone of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler would provide him with the space to break the spell that Rupert Murdoch has held over senior British politicians for the past 30 years.
Miliband’s apparent dislike of comparisons is thus probably not the result of false modesty. For a 41-year-old, he is not short of achievements. Indeed, the desire not to let us in on which of Labour’s past leaders he most identifies with is more likely evidence of the political nous – that appreciation of the minefield that appearing to offend any one of the party’s many tribes presents – that saw him secure his leadership election victory. And all Labour leaders know that the Party’s appetite for any suggestion of admiration for Thatcher is extremely limited.
But the reality is that this reticence is rooted in something deeper. Only three of Miliband’s eight postwar predecessors – Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair – managed to win an election, and comparisons with each are problematic: no one would make the link with Attlee until they had, at the very least, crossed the threshold of No 10; Wilson is seen as too cunning and unprincipled for many people’s tastes; which leaves only Blair – and it is Miliband’s difficult relationship with the former prime minister’s New Labour political project that is clearly preoccupying him.
‘The challenges we face in Britain are just totally different from challenges found at the formation of New Labour,’ Miliband contends. He is not, however, arguing that the party should abandon attempts to occupy the political centre-ground which Blair dominated during his time in office: ‘There is a centre-ground we have got to speak to,’ Miliband suggests, ‘and it is really important that we do it in a way that reflects 2011 not 1997. And that is what I’m about.’
Indeed, Miliband’s fledgling political project is founded on the notion that, under his leadership, Labour has discovered and is occupying what he terms ‘the new centre-ground’. ‘The issues I have been talking about – the “squeezed middle” and the new inequality – not just the old inequality between the top and the bottom, but the new inequality – between the top and everyone else – is a centreground issue,’ he suggests.
This is a bold claim: under Neil Kinnock, long before the emergence of New Labour, talk of inequality was seen as off-putting to ‘middle England’ and, in its place, frontbenchers were asked to talk about ‘fairness’. But Miliband evidently thinks times have changed.
‘Inequality is a centre-ground issue in politics precisely … because I think the way in which the “squeezed middle” has been squeezed … makes it an issue. It has always been an issue, but it makes it a direct issue for a lot more people.’
Miliband also believes that another element of New Labour’s conception of the centre-ground – its perceived view that attacks on the wealthy would be seen as ‘anti-aspiration’ – needs revising.
He argues that when ‘people used to say “it is anti-aspiration to talk about people at the top”, it is not anti-aspiration – it is pro-aspiration. It is pro-aspiration because if you have got banks who are not doing the right thing, if you’ve got people in banks taking tens of millions in bonuses that aren’t deserved, if they are hurting small businesses, then it is pro-aspiration to be pointing that out and promising to change it.’
But when he talks about ‘people at the top’, Miliband is not referring to the wealthy so much as an irresponsible elite and powerful vested interests – whether it be the banks, Rupert Murdoch or the electricity companies. Wealth-creators, he believes, should be rewarded but questions whether people should be giving themselves bonuses or pay rises which are undeserved.
Unsurprisingly, Miliband is utterly convinced that his support for the retention of the 50p top rate of tax is both right and popular. ‘I think the political debate is in the wrong place when people are talking about getting rid of the 50p tax rate,’ he says of recent reports that the chancellor is preparing the ground for its abolition. ‘And, you know, there is a big contrast in politics. The Tory-led government’s priority for tax cuts is cutting the 50p tax rate. That is totally the wrong priority … when you think about … the cuts in the childcare tax credit that we have seen.’
Indeed, for a man noted for his intellectual bent – the Labour leader joked in May that his stag do did not consist of ‘two Fabian Society lectures and half a pint of beer’ – Miliband has begun to pepper his political narrative with somewhat populist language, echoing the ‘people versus the powerful’ rhetoric employed by some Democrats in the United States.
He is keen, for instance, that Labour’s conference shows who the party stands up for – what he terms ‘the hard-working majority, the grafters’ – and he has begun to develop a wider argument around his talk of the ‘promise of Britain’. It remains, he says, about ‘the idea that young people do better than their parents’, but it is also ‘about something bigger. It is about the potential of the country.’ Labour has got ‘to show and say very clearly that Britain is a country with huge promise’.
But, reflecting this new populism, Miliband believes that ‘what we have got to do is explain why it is a country being held back and why people are being held back.’ He recognises that ‘the answers are quite deep’, but goes on to argue that is ‘fundamentally about this: it is about the fact that the rules of our country don’t sufficiently speak to the hard-working majority: whether that is [the] “take what you can” short-termism in the City – or some of the rules about the welfare state and the way the welfare state works.’ In short, Miliband suggests, ‘you have got this hardworking majority that are being held back by some of the rules of the country’ and it is Labour’s challenge to ‘change the rules of the game’.
He also believes that this narrative provides a worthwhile line of attack on the Tories. ‘These problems did not necessarily start under the Tories, we should be candid about that, but they are making it worse,’ Miliband contends. ‘They are making it worse by not taking on the banks properly and not making those decisions, they are making it worse by making the lives of [people in the] middle more difficult and they are making it worse on welfare.’
Echoing the arguments made by the shadow Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward in his leaked memo about the Tories, Miliband is also keen to highlight the contrast between the ‘compassionate conservative’ language adopted by David Cameron in opposition and what Woodward termed the Prime Minister’s current ‘more recognisably rightwing’ persona. ‘I think we followed a balanced approach in relation to the riots which was: restore law and order and don’t dismiss the issue of culture but equally don’t pretend that hope and opportunity don’t matter,’ says Miliband. The Prime Minister, he suggests, has moved from the ‘hug-a-hoodie’ rhetoric of opposition to arguing that the causes of the riots are ‘about the health and safety laws and human rights’. This one-dimensional approach, Miliband believes, may be populist but it is not centrist.
With the media, and much of the country, baying for condemnation rather than explanation in the wake of the riots, Miliband’s ‘balanced approach’ was, perhaps, another example of the Labour leader ‘following his instincts’. Is that what a year at the helm of the Labour Party has taught him to do? Possibly. Miliband himself puts it another way: ‘What I have learned is … we are best as a party when we speak out without fear or favour.’ That is something that one ageing press baron at least learned to his cost this summer.
This article was originally printed in UK Labour’s progressive magazine, Progress.