Miliband makes tackling inequality his defining mission for government

In the form of a commitment to reduce inequalities "in income, opportunity and power", Miliband has articulated the radical agenda he would pursue after 2015.

One of the things that attracted so many in Labour to Ed Miliband's leadership campaign was his commitment to reduce inequality. Confronted by the widening gap between rich and poor, Tony Blair would glibly remark that he didn’t go into politics "to make sure that David Beckham earns less money". Gordon Brown was less intensely relaxed about the "filthy rich" but doubted whether it was possible to significantly reduce inequality in a country that he continued to view as conservative. 

Miliband, by contrast, recognised that progressive governments have both a moral and an economic duty to do so. And for him, as Kant put it, ought implied can. As he wrote in a piece for the New Statesman in August 2010, "We, politicians and the public, have to decide what kind of society we want to live in, and whether the difficult task of greater equality is worth the candle. It is - and it is at the very heart of why we need to move on from New Labour. During our years in power, we didn't do enough to stop the gap between rich and poor getting wider. If you really believe in a society where there is social mobility, where we look after each other, where we build social solidarity, then the gap matters."

But as Miliband has focused on developing his "retail offer" to voters, in the form of policies such as the energy price freeze and a mass housebuilding programme, there are some in Labour who feel this overarching message has been lost. While the theme of inequality has risen to prominence in such unlikely places as Davos, it has been surprisingly absent from Miliband's recent speeches. But in his Hugo Young lecture tonight he will act to correct this omission. 

When Miliband ran for the leadership in 2010, his commitment to reduce inequality was viewed as a radical challenge to the Westminster consensus. But as he will rightly note this evening, "nationally and internationally, this is changing". He will cite Barack Obama, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, the Pope, and Conservatives David Skelton and Jesse Norman as examples of political figures, from the left and the right, who have recognised the necessity of building a more equal society. "Tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics," he will declare. Here's the key extract: 

Many people across every walk of life in Britain – politics, charity and business – now openly say they believe that inequality is deeply damaging. Internationally too, political and civic leaders are talking about inequality in a way that they haven’t for generations.

At the end of last month, President Obama put it right at the heart of his agenda for government. A few months before that the Democratic candidate for Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, was elected with precisely the same message. We now have a Pope who says the same.

And that’s because people the world over are beginning to recognise some fundamental facts again. That it offends people’s basic sense of fairness when the gaps between those at the top and everyone else just keep getting bigger regardless of contribution. That it holds our economies back when the wages of the majority are squeezed and it weakens our societies when the gaps between the rungs on the ladder of opportunity get wider and wider. And that our nations are less likely to succeed when they lack that vital sense of common life, as they always must when the very richest live in one world and everyone else a very different one. 

I believe that these insights are at the heart of a new wave of progressive politics. And will be for years to come. Indeed, not just left of centre politics. Intelligent Conservatives from David Skelton outside Westminster to Jesse Norman inside recognise the importance of inequality as well.

I believe that the public want to know we get it; we understand the depths of the cost of living crisis they face. And we can’t go on with countries where the gap between those at the top and everyone else just gets bigger and bigger. Tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics.

When Miliband has spoken about inequality in the past he has usually been referring to income and opportunity. An important shift tonight will be to widen his focus to include inequalities of power. It is a recognition that some of the greatest disparities between groups cannot simply be plotted on a decile graph. Too often, in their contact with public services, individuals are denied the opportunity to shape their own lives. It is this Blue Labour insight that lies behind Miliband's promise of radical devolution (as I wrote this morning) and a revolution in transparency and accountability.

As he will say, citing Michael Young's Small Man, Big World and Saul Alinksy, the father of modern community organising, "I care about inequality of income and opportunity. But I care about something else as well. Inequalities of power. Everyone - not just those at the top - should have the chance to shape their own lives. I meet as many people frustrated by the unresponsive state as the untamed market: the housing case not dealt with, the special educational needs situation unresolved, the problems on the estate unaddressed. And the causes of the frustrations are often the same in the private and public sector: unaccountable power with the individual left powerless to act against it. So just as it is One Nation Labour’s cause to tackle unaccountable power in the private sector, so too in the public sector."

In the form of a commitment to tackle inequality, in all its forms, Miliband has come the closest yet to articulating what will be Labour's defining mission in government. When David Cameron delivered the same lecture in 2009, he too vowed to reduce poverty and inequality (albeit through conservative means), declaring: "What I have spoken about today combines optimism about the potential for social renewal with realism about the role of the state in fighting poverty and inequality. If we stick the course and change this country then we will have a national life expanded with meaning and mutual responsibility. We will feel it in the strength of our relationships - the civility and courtesy we show to each other."

But more recently, under the tutelage of Lynton Crosby, he has retreated to a narrow, sour agenda characterised by ever-more dogmatic policies on welfare and immigration. The themes of inequality and poverty now rarely, if ever, appear in his speeches. It is another reminder of why the next election will be defined by the kind of big choices that have for so long been absent from British politics. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496