Show Hide image

Ed Miliband: "The biggest enemy is not enthusiasm for the Conservatives"

Rafael Behr spent the day on the campaign trail with the Labour leader - a day that took a dramatic turn with news that Thatcher is dead.

The early-afternoon train from Ipswich to Cambridge is quiet enough for Ed Miliband’s entourage to sprawl across several rows of seats. The Labour leader is at a table near the back of a standard-class carriage – the centre of a bivouac of advisers, press officers, party photographers, their bags and papers. He is focusing intently on his BlackBerry, editing text on the tiny screen. It isn’t the ideal implement for drafting a statement, and Marc Stears, an old university friend and adviser, slides into an adjacent seat and proffers his iPad instead.

Two minutes have passed since word arrived that Margaret Thatcher has died. In roughly 15 minutes the train will reach its destination, where Miliband will have to broadcast his reaction. The mood is urgent but there is no panic. Miliband’s features barely flickered when an aide leaned across the table to deliver the news. He absorbed the data with a slow nod. “Oh. Right.”

Now, his face is a mask of solemn concentration. The task is clear enough. The Labour Party is steeped in enmity towards Thatcher but its leader must find words that address the occasion without partisan rancour. The gravity of the moment and respect for a family’s bereavement must somehow be combined with acknowledgment of a political legacy that divided the country and, in the eyes of the left, inflicted social wounds that are yet to heal.

Opposite Miliband sits Tom Baldwin, another senior adviser, taking a call from Harriet Harman, deputy Labour leader and the first shadow cabinet minister to make contact since the news broke. He passes the phone to Miliband to confirm briefly the contours of the response. The draft statement is emailed around the table from phone to phone; a handful of calls are made to senior party figures back in Westminster.

There isn’t time for rumination on the wider significance of the moment. Only one political decision is made within seconds of the news breaking. Miliband declares a suspension of the local election campaign he was supposed to be launching today. A ripple of logistical calls rolls down the carriage.

The text is still being finalised as the train pulls in to Cambridge. Then there is a brisk stride to a waiting car and a hurried quest for a suitable location to film the tribute. The script is memorised en route to the Backs, a belt of manicured parkland behind a row of imposing colleges, and delivered in one take to a Sky TV crew.

Only on the walk back to the car does the Labour leader allow himself the faintest flicker of a wry smile at the sombre turn the day has taken. When we’d met at Liverpool Street Station first thing that morning, Miliband had been in a congenial mood, fresh from a family holiday in rural Devon. He had a campaign to kick off with a gleaming new policy – giving local authorities power to banish predatory payday lenders from the high street.

He was unfazed by a week in which his party had been bogged down in gruesome combat over its position on welfare. The debate had taken an ugly twist when George Osborne cited the case of Mick Philpott, a convicted child killer, as a case study in the failings of the benefits system. When senior Labour figures expressed outrage, they were accused of siding with waste and depravity over honest toil.

On the train to Ipswich I asked Miliband if he was concerned by the Chancellor’s supreme confidence that public opinion supports his harsh line on welfare; that Labour walks into his traps by defending a system many voters deem indefensible. “You have to do what you think is right. I don’t feel anxious about it because I’ve learned that the most powerful form of politics is sticking to what you believe in . . . The Tories will go looking for traps and tricks. They’ll engage in the most divisive, dirty kind of politics. We’ve got a bigger task than that.”

Behind the welfare attacks, Miliband sees the hand of Lynton Crosby, David Cameron’s campaign chief, who has a reputation for brawling attack politics imported from his native Australia. “They are making a massive strategic error by going down the Crosby route,” Miliband says. “It’s a classic mistake of using devices that maybe look good for a day and then come apart.”

At times, his dismissal of the Tory leadership verges on contempt. “The biggest enemy is not enthusiasm for the Conservatives. You don’t meet people who say, ‘I think David Cameron is really brilliant.’ Not even in the Tory party. Tory MPs put their thumbs up to me when I do well at Prime Minister’s Questions.”

That doesn’t mean Labour can walk the next election. Miliband declares the Tories “eminently beatable” but on one condition: that his own party can overcome the corrosive feeling of despair that leads voters to think that politics itself is failing and that there is no alternative to the bleak Conservative offer of perpetual austerity. “The right wins when there is fatalism, when no one can see a way out of their problems. We win when we convince people that there is a way and that we can set Britain in the right direction.”

In the carriage with us is the man Miliband thinks might hold an antidote to such fatalism. Arnie Graf is the 69-year-old US veteran trainer of “community organisers”. If all goes according to plan, Graf’s system will transform the Labour Party from a centralised, rusty machine for mass leaflet delivery into a thriving ecosystem of grassroots campaigners. The key, Graf tells me, lies in giving ordinary members ownership of the policymaking process. Then they become not just cogs in a mechanism but evangelists for a cause. “If people feel their ideas are taken seriously, they’ll participate. But if you’re told what to do from London, if you’re told what to do from anywhere, after a while you either won’t do it or your lack of enthusiasm will become clear.” Miliband speaks with soft awe about the enthusiasm that Graf generates in rooms full of fresh recruits – “Arnie’s Disciples”, he calls them.

The feeling is mutual. Graf has been “organising” in communities for 50 years but steered clear of party politics in the US. Now he is on board with Project Miliband. “I’ve just never come across anyone I want to work for. Ed is the first.”

The Graf view of politics is partly what lies behind the new policy of giving councils power to thwart the legal loan sharks colonising Britain’s high streets. Westminster might not be much perturbed by payday lenders but the ease with which they prey on vulnerable people in less affluent quarters is a concern that has been passed up to the Labour leadership by anxious councillors across the country.

The idea wins a rousing cheer when presented to a packed hall in central Ipswich (although the crowd is generously seeded with local party members). Yet the promise to resuscitate ailing high streets also gets a warm reception from shoppers in the town centre when Miliband goes walkabout.

He plainly enjoys this side of the job, bouncing from one encounter to the next, shaking hands, wrapping arms around shoulders, nodding vigorously, laughing, amassing a trail of well-wishers and curious onlookers. Inviting journalists to witness this bonhomie – the rays of Miliband’s dawning celebrity – is no small part of the campaign. It is meant to dispel the notion that Miliband is wooden and lacking in charisma. The Labour leader’s boundless appetite to hear the concerns of voters is also supposed to form a contrast with his Tory counterpart, who is painted as aloof, arrogant, heeding only the demands of his own MPs and wealthy donors.

Extricating Miliband from his East Anglian public in time to catch the train to Cambridge proves to be a challenge for aides, who signal frantically at watches and then resort to tugging at his sleeve before steering him into a taxi like a kidnap victim. The train is caught with seconds to spare.

Two hours later, after the news: another journey, this time from Cambridge straight back to London. The whistle-stop tour of electoral target regions planned for the next few days is blown. Thatcher’s passing has suspended ordinary politics. The entourage sets up camp in a new carriage and haggles politely over sandwiches. It is a last chance to ask Miliband some questions. One topic is inescapable.

“There are lots of people in the Labour Party who deeply dislike what Mrs Thatcher did, who saw her as a very divisive figure,” he says. “I myself, at university and growing up, disagreed with so much of what she did but there are also a lot of people today who will be feeling very upset and will feel – rightly, I think – that there needs to be an acknowledgement of her achievements as a person. That’s what I’ve tried to reflect in what I’ve said.”

In the statement prepared on the train earlier, Miliband had made the point that all three main party leaders today were products in some way of the Thatcher era. It is, he notes, extraordinary to consider that her shadow is so long when she left Downing Street 23 years ago. Anyone younger than 30 now will barely remember her time in office, he muses. “But she has defined the trajectory of politics . . . It wasn’t just specific policies. She established an ethos, a way of thinking about things that was profoundly different from the 1970s.”

In the early days of Miliband’s leadership, some of his allies talked enthusiastically about lessons from Thatcher’s time in opposition. Cautious parallels were drawn – the unexpected leadership candidate, dismissed as lacking the gravitas to be prime minister, who harboured a discreetly radical ambition to change the orientation of British politics. It is clear that Miliband will not be drawn into any disquisition on the strategic relevance to his own ambitions of Thatcher’s revolution, and wisely so.

We talk more generally about the deep cycles of politics: the abandonment of trust in central state interventions, followed by unquestioning belief in market forces that has been undone by the financial crisis. People now feel powerless, says Miliband, exploited by vast commercial interests and betrayed by politicians. “That’s the challenge of the time,” he says. “People don’t have faith in market forces, absolutely not. And people are also worried about an unresponsive state. It’s cutting through those two things that’s important. That is where politics needs to be.”

This is a return to the earlier theme of our conversation – the idea that the discourse and habits of Westminster are losing relevance with alarming speed. The Tories, he says, have proved they are not equal to the scale of the task facing the country. Their way has already failed; Labour’s challenge is not to sit back and watch Cameron unravel but to set out the moral and ideological terms on which politics will be conducted after him. “We’re not in classic pendulum politics. You have to convince people that you can make a difference. You’ve got to push the pendulum.”

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.