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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.