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.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.