In defence of Ed Miliband (and Maurice Glasman)

It's time to stop looking at today's politics through the lens of the 1980s and 1990s, Blairite and

We live in perplexing political times. Ed Miliband delivers a conference speech praising the best of British business in the highest possible terms, and is dismissed by so-called Labour bloggers as an anti-business leader. Long-time anti-racist campaigner Diane Abbott is denounced on national television for racial stereotyping through Twitter. And now Maurice Glasman writes an article for the New Statesman calling on Miliband to deploy the gifts that only he can deploy, and is roundly condemned for turning against his own leader.

There are, of course, some standard explanations for these confusions. We live with a press that loves nothing more than an internal party dispute. Journalists, bloggers and tweeters all long for challenges to authority, even for a frenzied leadership election of the sort that brought down many a Tory leader in the last two decades. And perhaps our politicians should chose their words more cautiously as a result.

But there is something more fundamental going on too.

Our politics is in flux and confusion is the almost inevitable result. The flux is the direct consequence of the crash of 2008. That event did not just bring over a decade of Labour government to its end, it also displayed the bankruptcy of a political, social and economic order that began in the 1980s and continued unabated through the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

That order sometimes goes by the misleading name of "neo-liberalism." But it was much more straightforward than the technical jargon suggests. It was an order premised on the idea that the financial might of the City of London would power economic growth in the UK so long as it was left essentially unfettered by the demands of normal democratic politics.

The tax revenues that then flowed from the City would prop up the rest of the country, either by supporting employment through public sector expansion or by provided a financial guarantee for welfare benefits. Labour opposed this order in its early days. But it eventually largely capitulated to it. In the Party's "New Labour" formation, it openly committed itself to maintaining the same order, just running it more efficiently and more equitably than the Conservatives had.

The crash brought all of this to an end.

Nobody now can seriously deny that our politics cannot be run like that anymore. Any objective observer of our situation would accept the need to "rebalance" our economy, to transform our national provision of skills and training, to open up access to capital for small and medium size businesses across the country, to find a way of ensuring real and sustainable private sector growth.

But even if our situation should be clear, Ed Miliband is the single political leader who has consistently demonstrated that he really appreciates just how significant a change Britain's new situation demands.

He was the first to identify the dangers our economic malaise posed not just to the poor but to the vast middle class of our country. He was the first to call for a new culture of responsibility, not just among those dependent on benefits but on those in our boardrooms and among our nation's shareholders. He was the first to highlight both the moral evil and the economic stupidity of runaway executive pay.

Such far-reaching calls for change scare people. Most clearly, they scare some members of our political class and our commentariat who would prefer things to go back to the way they were. There are always going to be some people who long for the familiar tussles of the past, who feel they understood the minor differences between a Blair and a Brown, or even a Blair and a Thatcher.

They understand our contemporary politics through the lens of the 1980s and the 1990s. And everything is classified in the terms that those decades presented: pro-business or anti-business; pro-public sector or anti-public sector; pro-privatisation or anti-privatisation; Blairite or Brownite.

But this is to make a terrible error. Our politics is necessarily different now. The choices are not the same. Our hope remains, of course, but our aspirations are necessarily chastened by the experience of the crash.

As Miliband reminded us in his New Year message, Labour must now offer a programme for social justice suitable for austere times, not for times of boom. That will require imaginative thinking, tough decisions and, most importantly of all, real political courage. When someone points that out -- whoever they may be -- it should not be taken as a sign of contemporary disloyalty nor a treacherous abandonment of the achievements of the past, but as an appreciation of the seriousness of the situation that we face. If our politicians do not have the courage to face the challenge head-on, then it will be our country that suffers as a result.

Marc Stears is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Professor of Political Theory at Oxford.

Marc Stears is fellow in politics, University College, Oxford and visiting fellow at IPPR.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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