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Leader: Miliband’s Thatcheresque challenge – to change the soul of the nation

Like the former Conservative prime minister, Miliband aspires to be a genuinely transformative leader. Will he succeed?

Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.
Margaret Thatcher

Those words remain the clearest distillation of the former Conservative leader’s philosophy. Thatcherism was not only an economic crusade to smash the postwar consensus but an ethical project founded on the belief that socialism was inherently morally corrupting. By expanding home ownership, taming inflation, privatising nationalised utilities, weakening the unions and reducing marginal tax rates in an effort to create an “enterprise economy”, Mrs Thatcher sought to promote what the political philosopher Shirley Letwin called “vigorous virtues” – self-reliance, industriousness, fidelity and thrift – and in the process remade the nation through harsh conflict.

Today, the Labour Party has a leader who similarly views politics as a moral challenge, but from the centre left. New Labour, Ed Miliband has said, was “better at rebuilding the fabric of our country than the ethic”. He has declared that Labour must seek not just to return to power in 2015 but to make its values and ideas the “common sense of our age”. Just as Mrs Thatcher rejected the decades-long postwar consensus, so Mr Miliband has rejected the consensus established by her government and faithfully adhered to by every prime minister since. The financial crisis and years of declining living standards (11 million people have had no rise in their real incomes since 2003) are, for him, symptoms of an economic model that is not merely defective, but broken.

So, too, is the steep rise in 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 significantly to reduce inequality in a country that he continued to view as conservative.

In his speech to this year’s Labour conference in Manchester, Mr Miliband declared: “I will never accept an economy where the gap between rich and poor just grows wider and wider. In one nation, in my faith, inequality matters.”

“My faith”: here, too, the parallels with Mrs Thatcher are striking. “The Old Testament prophets did not say, ‘Brothers, I want a consensus,’” she once remarked. “They said, ‘This is my faith. This is what I passionately believe. If you believe it, too, then come with me.’”

Like Mrs Thatcher, Mr Miliband aspires to be a genuinely transformative leader. Is he deluded? Or can he win power and build a counter-hegemonic project comparable with Thatcherism?

The year did not begin well for him. In January, Maurice Glasman, the maverick “Blue Labour” intellectual ennobled by Mr Miliband, wrote of his patron’s leadership in the New Statesman: “There seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy.” His words reflected and reinforced the concerns of many and there was, in the weeks after the intervention, much chatter about a possible leadership challenge. Exacerbating anxiety was Mr Miliband’s 2011 conference speech, with its sharp distinction between “predatory” and “productive” capitalism. It was poorly delivered and explained, and an incoherent policy review, subdivided into 29 groups, produced little of note under the guidance of Liam Byrne.

Much has changed since then. Mr Miliband has unified the party behind him. His theme of “one nation” has given him a powerful frame for his arguments and Labour’s standing in the polls has improved noticeably. Having received just 29 per cent of the vote in the 2010 general election, its second-worst result since 1918, Labour now regularly polls between 40 and 45 per cent, with a double-digit lead over the Conservatives. In the 1980s, it was the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the consequent split in the centre-left vote that allowed Mrs Thatcher to win successive landslide victories. In 2015, the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats and the reunification of the left around Labour could bring Mr Miliband to power, with a slender majority.

Labour’s policy review is now being led by Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham. It is con­centrating on three areas: a new economy, a good society and a new politics. Like the early Thatcherites, Mr Cruddas has sought to “pull together ideas from a wide international orbit”. Thinkers such as the Harvard philo­sopher Michael Sandel, the Australian writer Tim Soutphommasane and the American academic Danielle Allen are among those whose ideas are informing Labour and helping it find a new language in which to address welfare reform and immigration.

Mr Cruddas represents an impoverished constituency in the borderland between Essex and east London. He understands the anxieties of those voters who believe, wrongly or otherwise, that mass immigration has depressed wages. Labour remains distrusted not only on immigration but also on the economy: on its watch, asset bubbles were allowed to inflate dangerously and not enough houses were built and the party did not have a credible industrial policy until too late.

Labour was chastened by defeat. Can it now offer more than what David Miliband, writing in these pages in July, called “defensive social democracy”? Can it create a novel kind of “responsible capitalism” that delivers sustainable growth and realigns contribution with reward? Labour has in the past viewed public spending and state intervention as the engines of progress but, because of the fiscal constraints it would face in office (the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that the deficit will be £99bn in 2015), it can no longer do so. Instead, Mr Miliband and his advisers speak correctly of “predistribution” – the allocation of income and opportunities before taxes and cash transfers – and, in another Thatcheresque flourish, “a supply-side revolution from the left”. In the new economy they envisage, workers’ representatives will sit on company boards, firms will be encouraged to pay the living wage and the banks will become the servants of the people, not the masters. All of this is commendable, if utopian. And Mr Miliband lacks the kind of emblematic policies, such as the “right to buy” council houses, that built popular grass-roots support for Thatcherism in Labour strongholds.

Outside of Mr Miliband’s inner circle, there remain too few willing to speak for his project. He has no intellectual outrider comparable to Keith Joseph and few unshakeable allies in the shadow cabinet. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has spoken little of the notion of “responsible capitalism”. His Keynesian critique of the government’s austerity programme has proved robust but it is entirely defensive. The party will not win the election simply by trying to convince voters that the economy would have performed better under its stewardship.

David Cameron has been a disappointment as Prime Minister, even to many of those who once believed in his promise of a more compassionate Conservatism. He is a fluent and plausible leader and performs well in a crisis but what does this patrician believe in and what does he want, beyond the pleasures and privileges of power? The government he leads too often seems incompetent and directionless, with the exception of his chief cabinet ideologue, the ardent Michael Gove. The Conservatives will no doubt insist that voters should trust them to “finish the job” of deficit reduction and economic recovery. It could yet prove an attractive message to an electorate resigned to sustained austerity.

It remains for Mr Miliband to convince the public that it should share his “faith” and follow him in his pursuit of social and economic transformation.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.