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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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.