Ed Miliband: It would be "politically crackers" to spend like the last Labour government

The comeback interview.

After a notably low-key summer, Ed Miliband returns to the fray with an interview in tomorrow's New Statesman, his first of the new political season. You can read the full piece by NS editor Jason Cowley in tomorrow's issue but, as a preview for Staggers readers, here are some of the key quotes from it.

On public spending

Asked whether the party’s position has changed since Ed Balls said in January it would have to keep “all these cuts”, Miliband says:

Our position hasn’t changed [from January.] Look, we absolutely hold to everything we said at the beginning of the year, and what Ed and I said was that the next Labour government is going to take over in very different circumstances and is going to have to have a very different prospectus than the last.

And if we came along and said ‘look, we can just carry on like the last Labour government did’ – I mean it's politically crackers to do that, because we wouldn't win the election and we wouldn't deserve to win the election. We can’t say: ‘Look, we just want to sort of carry on where we left off, you know, the electorate was wrong, we were right, thanks very much…" It's not realistic.

Ed Balls is not going to go to the Labour party conference and say, ‘It's going to be the old model where we have economic growth and then we'll use lots of that money to spend lots, to spend billions of pounds.’ It's not realistic and it's not credible.

The next Labour government, he adds, will be unable to restore those benefits abolished by the coalition such as the Education Maintenance Allowance.

"I can’t make a promise on EMA. You can't both say to me there's less money to spend and are you realistic about the economic circumstances and then I spray around lots of promises. That's why Ed's speech [on accepting Tory cuts and fiscal discipline] in January and my speech were important."

Reports of tensions with Balls “nonsense”

The Labour leader says that reports of tensions between himself and Ed Balls are "nonsense" and that relations with his shadow chancellor are "good".

Asked why he originally gave the position to Alan Johnson, rather than Balls, he says: "Look, you make the decisions you make. We’ve been working together now for 18 months. Everybody said at the time that it would be a repeat of Blair and Brown and all that. But it’s total nonsense, honestly. He’s been proved right about austerity."

Balls is physically intimidating - and that’s a good thing

Asked whether he finds Balls physically and intellectually intimidating, he replies: "To the Tory opponents he is, yes, and that’s a jolly good thing."

Labour’s new big idea: predistribution

With the next Labour government unable to spend as much as its predecessors did, Miliband says that he will focus on changing "the rules of the economy". In a major speech on the economy tomorrow, he will say that while “redistribution is still necessary and will remain a key aim”, the party will  need to care more about "predistribution".

The Government’s economic failure means that whoever wins the next election will still face a deficit that needs to be reduced. The redistribution of the last Labour government relied on revenue which the next Labour government will not enjoy. The option of simply increasing tax credits in the way we did before will not be open to us.

We need to care more about predistribution.  Centre-left governments of the past tried to make work pay better by spending more on transfer payments.  Centre-left governments of the future will have to make work pay better by doing more to make work itself pay.  That is how we are going to build growth based not just on credit, but on real demand.

I think this is a centre-left moment. Why might you think it’s a centre-right moment? Well, because of issues of fiscal responsibility, which is why we must be strong on that. But for me it’s a centre-left moment because people think there’s something unfair and unjust about our society. You’ve got to bring the vested interest to heel; you’ve got to change the way the economy works. That’s our opportunity.

Why I don’t support the “Brown model”

Miliband accepts that the old Labour model of deciding targets for public services cannot be replicated. "There’s one way that says you just set lots of targets centrally and that’s the way you make public services work. That’s the Brown model, slightly caricatured. The second model is – if it doesn’t work, tender it out. Outsource it. That has its problems of fragmentation. Take what [Michael] Gove is doing in education. He’s a great centraliser, actually. He’s trying to run 1,500 academies from central government. The Labour response should not be simply to say that all academies’ powers should be sucked back to local authorities. I want to devolve more power to all schools – about the curriculum, about the way they work, but at the same time we’ve got to have some local co-ordination.

"People are out of love with an uncontrolled market but they’re certainly not in love with a remote state."

On welfare and responsibility

On welfare and benefits, the Labour leader insists that some form of contribution from the recipients of welfare must replace what Liam Byrne, former head of the Labour policy review, called "unearned support".

"I do think we need a society where people make a contribution,” Miliband says. “You build a successful society out of people showing responsibility. That’s an important principle at the top, it’s an important principle elsewhere. But people at the top have a particular responsibility because they help define the ethic of the country."

On Liam Byrne’s “punishment beating”

Miliband scoffs at the suggestion that Liam Byrne, the former head of Labour’s policy review, received a "punishment beating" for speaking out on the ills of welfare dependency. "I have a lot of time for Liam," he says.

What I’ve been reading

While on holiday in Greece, Miliband says he read "The Fear Index by Robert Harris, Skios by Michael Frayn, which is about Greece. And then I read a couple of more serious books – The New Few by Ferdinand Mount, How Much is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky and also the [Michael] Sandel [What Money Can’t Buy: Markets and Morals]."

I didn’t take my phone on holiday

The Labour leader reveals that while on holiday, his first extended break since 2009, he left his phone behind in London, read no British newspapers and watched no television news.

"It was such a relief and a liberation not having a phone," he says. Those who wanted to contact him were told to ring his wife, Justine, "which of course they were reluctant to do".

Why the Olympics mattered

Reflecting on the Olympics, Miliband says, "for the first time in my life, I got a sense of what my dad [the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband] used to talk to me about, about the wartime spirit, his time in the navy. You can’t have a permanent Olympic Games, but I think there’s something about what kind of country do we feel like. Do we feel a sense of obligation to each other? Do people feel the benefits and burdens of life are fairly distributed? Those things are partly economic but they go deeper than that."

On mental health

He adds that one of the biggest policy agendas for Labour is the future of mental health.

"We are a stressed out country. That’s everything from depression to general stress – and there’s a great taboo about mental health ...  What kind of economy you have shapes what kind of society you are. If you’re a country where people need to work two or three jobs, 50/60 hours a week, don’t get a chance to see their kids, all of that – then you’re not a country that is at ease with itself and you’re not a country where people have the well being that they need."

My “problem with free schools”

In the week that it was announced that 55 of Michael Gove’s free schools will open this autumn, Miliband toughens his party's stance against them.

While he concedes that Labour will "judge each one by what it does", he declares: "the problem with free schools is that you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, so there are kids in my constituency who aren’t getting the [school] buildings rebuilt."

He adds: "The Tories and Gove don’t seem to see schools as an instrument of the local community, but it’s just let’s have schools popping up all over like supermarkets and through this competitive alchemy it will make the school system better. I just don’t buy that argument."

Why I’m still opposed to a third runway at Heathrow

With the government attempting to dilute its pledge not to build a third runway at Heathrow airport, Miliband says that he remains “sceptical” of the proposal and criticises the coalition for its lack of commitment to the environment. He says:

We have a cross-party consensus that we must cut our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. What does that mean for our aviation emissions? You can’t just have unlimited expansion. The coalition is rocking like a drunken sailor on this issue of runways and airports. But where is the debate about the environment in this?

The Lib Dems’ "terrible, tragic mistake"

Reflecting on the fortunes of Nick Clegg’s party, Miliband says: "What’s happened to them is very bad for the country. I feel they made a terrible, tragic mistake [in entering the coalition]. I remember sitting in the coalition negotiations, the unsuccessful ones, and saying to them: ‘Do you realise what supporting the Tory deficit plan would mean? They all looked at me slightly blank. They hadn’t really thought it through."

What I’ve learned most: to follow my instincts

"The truth about modern politics is that the only way in which you can feel long in the future that you’ve done the right thing is by doing what you believe," Miliband says. "What have I learned most in the job? Follow my instincts."

How Justine sustains me

Asked what has sustained him during times of difficulty, Miliband says: "Justine, plus my instincts. My family is the most important thing in my life and therefore that’s always what you fall back on."

He adds: "I think what you learn most of all is, er – is it Zen? I’m not sure Zen is quite right, but I’m a pretty stoical guy. You know it’s not a walk in the park . . . but I’m sanguine. I know that conventional wisdom can swing one way, it can swing the other. I think I’ve just got to keep doing what I think is right and setting out my agenda. I think it’s the right agenda for the country. We’re going to expand it and broaden it in the months ahead."

Ed Miliband, pictured in the garden of his north London home. Photograph: Kate Peters / Institute
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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition