There is no need for Miliband to choose between radicalism and pragmatism

Neil O'Brien has underestimated the sophistication of the Labour leader's approach.

The longer Tories keep underestimating Ed Miliband, the better for Labour. So I feel slightly disloyal in pointing out where and why Neil O’Brien got it wrong in his essay in this week's New Statesman.

First, Ed didn’t go from "joke" to 45% in the polls by chance. For two years, he has kept setting the political agenda. Time and again, commentators and politicians who didn’t take him seriously missed the importance of what he was saying and its resonance outside Westminster.

His phrase "squeezed middle" was met with derision. A year later it was the Oxford English Dictionary's "word of the year".  Ed’s "producers vs predators" conference speech was taken as a sure sign he hadn’t got what it takes to be a "proper" political leader. Three months later, everyone was fighting to own responsible capitalism. And, now, as another banking scandal rages, it turns out that Labour has the best framework to understand what is going on.  He pitched "responsibility at the top and the bottom" against the exclusively anti -poor rhetoric of the government’s welfare reforms and forced a debate about top pay.

Miliband’s judgement on these issues reflects a profound belief that Britain can be more different than most people in politics dare imagine. I don't think for one moment that David Cameron thought hacking Milly Dowler’s phone was a good idea, but he couldn’t imagine a politics without Rupert Murdoch’s influence. Ed could, which is why he made the right calls on BSkyB and Leveson. This week, George Osborne’s inability to see the banking crisis as anything but a chance to score political points has, once again, put the Tories on the wrong side of a strategic argument. Sorting out the City today is more important than who might have done what ten years ago.

None of us in Westminster have yet broken free of the public cynicism about all politicians. But, maybe, just maybe, people are beginning to understand that Ed Miliband does things differently. Maybe it’s not such a surprise that Labour has recovered rather faster than most of us thought possible.  

Of course, the Tories certainly haven’t helped themselves. The NHS bill did not have to become a golden opportunity for Ed to hone his PMQs skills. The Budget did not have to be so incompetent.  Labour's attack was only possible, though,  because Miliband and Ed Balls had already defined fairness and growth as the two crucial budget tests.

But O’Brien’s biggest misjudgement is the belief that Miliband’s Labour is torn between radicalism and pragmatism, and that this choice has to be resolved one way or another. Ed Miliband is coming from a different place altogether.  As a new Fabian book, The Shape of Things To Come, shows, his genuine radicalism stems from a deep belief that it is only through far-reaching changes in the economy, society and politics of Britain that we can deliver for those who want practical answers to practical problems

He's confident that the economy can be reshaped by an active state enabling successful private business; an ambition that goes beyond the odd token grant and investment that passes for Osborne's "industrial strategy". The rules of the game can be set to favour long-term investment, innovation, competition and better jobs. If we don’t, we won’t be able to pay our way in the world. But as importantly, too much of Labour’s public spending was driven by problems of failing markets.  The cost of tax credits rose in an economy producing too many poorly-paid jobs. Housing benefit paid the cost of a private sector of limited supply, poor quality and high rent. 

There are some in Labour who assume that progressive change is measured by the level of public spending. But the emerging consensus among those Ed has promoted is that there is no foreseeable point where the public spending taps are turned back on. The cost of an ageing population, the need to invest, and the impossibility of increasing taxes for the squeezed middle will see to that. So it is the construction of a different economy, one that offers through work what past governments delivered through redistribution, that will let Labour deliver its aims even in lean times. O'Brien's belief that Labour's spending instincts are bound to spill out misreads the way Labour's debate is going.

This is a radical change, although some elements of an active industrial policy were pioneered by Peter Mandelson at the business department before the 2010 election. But it also has the best chance of delivering what Britain’s worried, vulnerable and socially conservative voters want to see; the ones who increasingly thought Labour doesn’t stand for them any more; the ones who didn’t think the economy worked for them.

O’Brien is right to say there are many issues that remainchallenging for Labour, not least welfare. But it’s telling that he sees this as a tactical issue for the Tories. Adopt an unpleasant policy that will really hurt some people and challenge Labour to vote against it. The truth is that time is running out for that sort of politics. The public know what politicians are up to. They don’t like it.

While few people will vote for a party that is seen as soft on fiddling or downright idleness, maybe there’s a bigger prize in offering a welfare system that actually works better. Shifting investment from tax credits to affordable child care, or landlords' rents to bricks and mortar. Rewarding those who work and contribute over those who didn’t.

So Miliband might respond to O'Brien's false choice by saying that in these times, radicalism is the pragmatic option. But as one of the authors of The Shape of Things To Come says, "Ed's self confidence in speaking about morality and culture sets him apart from the 'left liberal' social democrat norm of the past 50 years". This is not radicalism unrestrained by the views of real voters. The tough issues like migration and welfare will be tackled but not, I suspect, by the occasional lurch to the right, but by building a vision of Britain's future that connects Miliband's radical instincts to the instinctive fairness of the British people.

In a few weeks' time, kids across the country will ask, "are we nearly there yet?" In truth, not yet. But there is a radicalism, coherence and optimism to Ed Miliband's politics. I hope Neil O'Brien continues to underestimate it.

The Shape of Things To Come: Labour’s New Thinking, edited by John Denham, is published by the Fabian Society and FEPS.

"There is a radicalism, coherence and optimism to Ed Miliband's politics." Photograph: Getty Images.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war