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The narrow and shallow optimism of Ed Miliband’s Go Big

The unreal vision laid out in his new book explains the sad comedy of Miliband’s political career, and the rout of centre-left progressivism.

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There is a kind of poetry in Ed Miliband’s magnum opus coming out at the present time. Along with Hartlepool and swathes of the north and Midlands, Labour has lost control of Durham County Council, which it had held since 1919. Miliband’s own Doncaster North Westminster seat is at risk. Keir Starmer’s pursuit of a fictitious centre ground has led the party into a blind alley. Labour desperately needs new thinking. Yet at this moment of crisis, Miliband has come forward with a restatement of progressive orthodoxy.

The book itself is decidedly prosy. More than 350 pages long, nearly 70 of them footnotes and index, Go Big reads much of the time like a laborious doctoral thesis. But that is only one side of it. Originating from a podcast called Reasons to be Cheerful that Miliband co-launched in September 2017, it is also full of evangelical uplift. The closing lines read:

There is so much to fight for in the here and now. What happens in the next decade or two will have long-standing consequences. There are good people everywhere who believe in something better for our societies. You are not alone. If we join together we will succeed.

Struggling to recall where I last heard this plangent rhetoric, I go back to the closing months and weeks of 2016. Coming together in the dreary high-end hotels with which they seem to have a spiritual affinity, rattled elites were reeling from the shocks of Brexit and Trump. The atmosphere at these gatherings combined resentment at the irrationality of voters with a stubborn determination not to be knocked off course. There was no recognition that a fundamental alteration in perspective was needed: they believed a bigger and bolder progressive programme would put history back on track. Five years later, boosted by Joe Biden’s victory, Miliband thinks the same.

He aims to address every major area of policy. Over 20 chapters, he discusses climate change, transport, housing, changing patterns of work and family life, the failings of centralised government and what he sees as the need for innovative methods of democratic representation. In every case the solutions he proposes have been circulating on the centre left for many years, sometimes decades. Disinvesting from fossil fuels, a basic income, citizen’s assemblies, the virtues of bikes in cities – all of these nostrums come with familiar costs and risks, but fail to respond to the scale of the challenges created by the decline of social democracy.

Miliband addresses some urgently topical problems. He points to the rising inequalities and falling productivity that go with a race to the bottom in labour markets. A spreading zero-hours gig economy cannot be good for the well-being of workers. His response is to revive the wage boards established by the Liberal government in Britain in 1909. He recognises “our world is very different from the one for which [wage boards] were created”. Yet he fails to note the high levels of international labour mobility in recent times, and the role of large-scale immigration in weakening the bargaining power of workers. In this, of course, he is at one with nearly every other progressive leader. Bernie Sanders did once raise the issue, and reaped a whirlwind of indignant protest as a result.

[See also: Gordon Brown on vaccinations, poverty and the climate crisis]

There are larger omissions. China does not appear in the book’s compendious index (Nick Clegg, on the other hand, features twice), and apart from a few words on its part in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Crisis Conference, the superpower is barely mentioned. Omitting the biggest political fact of the age is distinctly odd. At the same time, it makes “fixing our world” a lot easier.

Discussing climate change, Miliband lauds “those who might be seen as impossibilists – like the people demanding net zero by 2025” for shifting the terms of debate. However, one reason why net zero is impossible by then, or anytime in the next few decades, is that China – the world’s largest emitter of Co2 – is pressing ahead with plans to open new coal-fired power plants. Given Xi Jinping’s economic growth targets, it may have no option. Extinction Rebellion, which Miliband praises lavishly, never tires of repeating that growth must not be pursued at the price of destroying the planet. Well, try telling that to Xi, for whom an expanding economy is indispensable if he is to achieve his objective of making China the global hegemon. China’s climate strategy is one of mitigation and adaptation. Shoring up China’s sea walls and expanding its nuclear power industry may not have the apocalyptic appeal of Western green policies, but could help bring the country nearer to Xi’s goal.

Reading these pages, you would never know that climate change is occurring at a time of increasing geopolitical rivalries. This may be why the book contains no discussion of national defence. There is nothing of Russia’s expansion into the Arctic, which aims to exploit the military and economic opportunities opened up by melting ice floes. Germany’s continuing support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will increase European dependency on Russian natural gas just as nuclear power is being phased out, is passed over in silence. There is no hint of the use of slave labour in China in the production of solar panels for export to Western countries. In Miliband’s world there is no problem of evil.

His account of the good life is narrow and shallow. In a short chapter entitled “That Which Makes Life Worthwhile”, he laments that increasing GDP has been the overriding goal of public policy. He has a point here, but he says very little about what gives most human beings meaning in their lives. Religion is not mentioned, any more than national identity is. The enduring needs they express are not explored, and the unspoken implication is they are significant only as sources of division. Personal choice and a diffuse ideal of community are the goods that will shape the future. Anyone who cherishes other values is implicitly dismissed as backward. The contradictions that go with being human are screened out, and instead we are presented with a bland abstraction.

More than any incidental errors and misjudgements, it is this unreal vision that explains the sad comedy of Miliband’s political career and the near-universal rout of centre-left progressivism. Writing in these pages in 2015 (“Misunderstanding the present”, 19 February), I suggested he aspired to lead a country that did not exist. Courting a chimerical egalitarian majority, he fought the general election of May 2015 on a programme of “predistribution”, triggering what was Labour’s biggest defeat since 1983 and gifting David Cameron’s Conservatives a surprise majority. Blind to the appeal of nationalism, he finished off Labour in Scotland. Today Miliband aims to fix a species that does not exist. His book is an exposition of the world-view that has taken the centre left close to extinction across nearly all of Europe, and now threatens Labour with a similar fate.

***

There have been several turning points in the fall of Labour. Tony Blair was in power for more than a decade, but even as he secured the support of sections of the middle class he set in motion the party’s detachment from its historic base – a trend that Gordon Brown did nothing to reverse. Addressing voters as if they were attending a Harvard seminar, Miliband implanted a perception of the party as the public face of a metropolitan think tank. Jeremy Corbyn’s animosity towards his own country, and his studied inaction regarding the virulent anti-Semitism at work in his party, led many Labour supporters to break the voting habit of a lifetime in 2019. Devised to win over middle-class families worried about student fees, Corbyn’s bourgeois populism completed Labour’s transformation. From being a coalition of workers and intellectuals, it became a party of graduates.

Since that group includes around half of young people in Britain today, this is commonly seen as a strength. But Labour’s dependency on the most thoroughly instructed section of society is also a liability. If the past decade teaches us anything, it is that an inability to grasp political realities increases with levels of education. The irony of New Labour is that by over-expanding the university sector, it created the constituency that now blocks the party from reconnecting with its former voters in the Red Wall.

In his recent New Statesman essay, Blair identifies some of the factors that have made Labour unelectable. “‘Defund the police,’” he writes, “may be the left’s most damaging slogan since ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.” Miliband does not go so far, but it is telling that, along with national defence, law and order do not appear on his agenda. Crime will fade away, he seems to suppose, with the gradual advance of equality and inclusion. Beyond the leafy glades of north London and other sheltered enclaves, it is a notion that provokes derision.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

Blair is right when he cautions progressives against taking too much comfort from Biden’s victory. It is not only that Donald Trump might have won a second term if he had not botched his pandemic response so badly. Many of Biden’s policies are Trump’s more deliberately executed. Across wide areas – protectionism, “running the economy hot” on ballooning debt, strategy towards China – Trumpism has been normalised. Where Biden departs from Trump – as in his border policy – he risks remobilising the social forces that brought Trump to power.

Blair is also right when he targets wokeish posturing as an obstacle to any Labour recovery. If you have lost the political battle and have a mounting dread of becoming irrelevant, wittering on about the awfulness of flag-waving may be therapeutic. (To his credit, Miliband never descends to this sort of attitudinising.) The trouble is that voters are not stupid. Few will warm to a party they suspect looks down on them as hopelessly naff.

***

There are snags in Blair’s analysis, however. One is ingrained in his way of thinking. He continues to believe globalisation and technology are impelling the world towards a single economic and political regime – roughly speaking, the one he presided over 20 years ago. Fixated on a time that for them embodied progress, those who believe history is moving towards a universal end-state cannot help being backward-looking. If only Blair had not had to cede power to Gordon Brown, or if Labour had not opted for “the wrong Miliband”, the architects of New Labour seem to think, we would be living in a much improved extension of the Nineties. Obviously, Ed Miliband’s counterfactual narrative is different, but he too believes the normal course of history has been interrupted. Boris Johnson suffers from no such teleological yearnings. That is why he has been able to ditch Thatcherism so easily, and leave Labour fighting a ghost.

Another difficulty concerns the role Blair seems to want to play in renewing his party. The problem is not only that many activists would rather choke on their own vomit than accept him, or anyone like him, as their next leader. For the graduates who have become Labour’s key electoral constituency, Blair is a figure from another era.

A change of leader cannot overcome the impasse Labour presently faces. All talk of knocking down the “Blue Wall” is puff and wind as long as the party is a vehicle for the progressivism of big cities and university towns. There is much talk of Labour merging with the Greens and Liberal Democrats and securing some variant of proportional representation. But that is the system under which the mainstream centre left has all but disappeared in Europe. A progressive alliance is the perennial panacea of those who delude themselves that a majority secretly shares their values.

To tap into discontent with the Tories, Labour needs to turn left in economics while turning away from the brands of identity politics – Corbynite, woke and uber- Remainer – that define themselves by hostility to their own culture.

This may seem an impossible task, and perhaps it is. But nothing in politics is permanent. Labour’s priority must be to ensure that it exists as a serious political force when the political wind changes. Somehow, if it is not to linger on as a disoriented rump whose role is to prop up Tory hegemony, the party must make a decisive break with the past. The merit of Ed Miliband’s book is that it shows what must be left behind. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life” (Allen Lane)

Go Big: How to Fix Our World
Ed Miliband
Bodley Head, 352pp, £18.99

[See also: Keir Starmer is adrift. Who can supply the direction he so desperately lacks?]

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

This article appears in the 02 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West