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

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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