We have been told over and again that Ed Miliband’s first speech as leader of the opposition was “devoid of any concrete policies”. That may be true as a point of fact. But reading a little between the lines of his speech, a decent whiff of what Miliband has in mind can be had. More to the point, we can get a pretty good sense of the ideas that will lie behind his agenda.
The key to deciphering the new Labour leader’s vision lies in the following line: “We must never again give the impression that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” as Miliband declared on Tuesday.
Ring any bells?
If you’ve been reading Tony Judt it might, for this is one of Judt’s opening salvoes in Ill Fares the Land, his final book — written earlier this year while suffering from advanced ALS — and a theme to which he returns throughout: “We know what things cost, but we have no idea what they are worth,” was how Judt put it. But the similarities don’t end there.
Indeed, dig a little deeper and a strong resonance between Judt’s later writing and the political tenor of Miliband’s speech becomes clearer by the moment. Time and again, nuggets of the former emerge in the vision of the latter.
This has little to do with the fact that both are sons of Jewish families. But we know that Ed has been casting around for ways to move the Labour bandwagon on from Blairism. And Judt was one of the more articulate critics of the Third Way project under Tony Blair — a man for whom he reserved special dislike. It becomes increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that, in fact, Judt’s Ill Fares The Land is a book to which Miliband has turned more than once.
At the heart of Miliband’s speech, for example, was a vision of political economy hitched to a redistributive agenda: “an economy too dependent on financial services, too many people stuck in low pay and dead-end jobs and growing inequality”, he said. This was a comment that appeared just before the other half of a well-known equation: “We must build prosperity as well as redistributing it.”
Judt, a staunch supporter of the Scandinavian model of social democracy, could hardly have put it better. Ill Fares the Land is in fact stuffed with evidence of the negative consequences of inequality under most other systems, but much of it taken from the authors of The Spirit Level — whose ideas, it should be noted, also influence the Compass group, which has supported Ed Miliband, and identifies with him.
But there are closer intellectual and political synergies between Judt’s social-democratic vision of “the good society” and Miliband’s vision of the same: a phrase that he used in variaous forms at six points in his speech. Here are the most important:
This was a major theme for Judt, who pointed out that “the corrosive consequences of envy and resentment . . . arise in visibly unequal societies”. And so, too, do we find that this is an important theme for Miliband. We need “to win back the trust of the country”, he said in Tuesday’s speech. Elswhere, Judt argued that one of the things required for building a fairer society was overcoming the current “disdain” — the very opposite of trust — for the public sector. And, as good as bid, a fair portion of Miliband’s speech was indeed about raising the flag for just this.
Miliband’s speech touched at numerous points on the need for all parties to the democratic pact — be it the state and its citizens, or employers and those whom they employ — to adopt a more responsible attitude. In place of the now-compromised bluster of Cameron’s “big society”, whose ambitions have already foundered on the predictable rocks of Budget overreaction and irresponsibility, Miliband promises an attention to caring for the building blocks of any functioning society. Judt long ago wrote about “the burden of responsibility” — the need to stick to principled guns in the face of the challenges and trends of the present. And Miliband’s emphasis throughout on “values” was most often about precisely this.
A society founded on more than just the notion of economic gain
Perhaps the central argument of Ill Fares the Land comes when Judt declares that, “for 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose”. Here is Miliband on the same: “Here is our generation’s paradox: the biggest ever consumers of goods and services, but a generation that yearns so much for the things that business cannot provide. Strong families. Time with your children. Green spaces. Community life. Love and compassion.”
It isn’t hard to discern further elements to the speech that resonate with the other Tony’s project. A deep sense of history was apparent, for example — perhaps not surprising for the son of Ralph Miliband, of course. But this public avowal of it bodes well for a party that does indeed need to learn from the past, and is not something David Miliband would have articulated. As Judt would have said — indeed, did say, quite rightly, and quite often — “we have been here before”. Indeed we have. And as if recognising this, Miliband was at pains to point out that the party should not become “a prisoner in its own certainties”. That, too, is classic Judt.
Looking forward, there were also more than a few Judtian attempts in Miliband’s speech to rethink old ideas into the frameworks fitted out for today: his comment that “true patriotism is about reducing the debt burden we pass on to our kids” was a sharp-minded way to gear nationalist pride to a more inclusive public agenda, for example: something that could not be further away from the poisoned harangues of the British National Party and English Defence League.
But perhaps above all, it was the very tone, not just of the speech itself, but of Miliband himself, that marks him out as a man looking to take Judt’s social-democratic agenda forward. And that is one of balance.
In what is the most important chapter of Ill Fares the Land, on “The Unbearable Lightness of Politics”, Judt pointed out that neither the “Nanny Knows Best” approach that marred the record of the postwar welfare-state years (often quite literally, when it came to the monstrous housing schemes of Ronan Point or Sarcelles) nor the “I Know Best” inheritance of the baby-boomer generation will work today.
What is required is a state, effective enough to support us when we need it, and to safeguard the communities within which we move, but not so overblown as to leave us unable to turn anywhere else for fulfilment. Outside this lie only those two extremes whose flags were planted and fought for throughout the 20th century. The politics of the 21st century must be different. And to date, of the current crop of British politicians, Ed Miliband looks to be the closest to grasping this.
If so, then Miliband has even more work before him than many have yet acknowledged. Judt deeply lamented the dismal performance over recent years of the social democrats right across Europe. And he would not have been pleased to see that, since his death this summer, the situation has only got worse, with the heartland of social democracy, Sweden, having taken a crushing blow just last week. One of the few social democrats now still in power in Europe is Spain’s José Luis Zapatero, and his recent anti-labour laws are hardly in the classic social-democratic mould.
Tony Judt would likely have found solace in knowing that his thought was already threaded into the new Labour leader’s speech. He would doubtless also have cast a barbed comment or two on the lingering influence of neoliberals within the party. But as Judt once said of social democracy itself, so for British voters might it be said of Labour under Miliband the Younger: it “does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand.”
One thing at least is certain. We haven’t been quite here before.