Ed Miliband’s dignified and well-crafted statement on Margaret Thatcher’s death reminded us of the inspiration he took from the former prime minister. As he pointedly noted, “She moved the centre ground of British politics”. Today, Miliband is attempting to achieve something similar. Labour, he has declared, must seek not just to just to return to power in 2015 but to make its values and ideas the “common sense of our age”. Just as Thatcher rejected the decades-long postwar consensus, so Miliband has rejected the consensus established by her government and faithfully adhered to by every prime minister since. Like her, he aspires to be a genuinely transformative leader.
Despite the huge majorities won by Labour in 1997 and 2001, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown continued to view Britain as a fundamentally conservative country. By contrast, Miliband believes, as his chief strategist Stewart Wood put it today (in reference to Thatcher), that “real change inspired by values” is possible. He has rejected, for instance, the Blairite notion that it is neither possible nor desirable for the state to seek to reduce inequality. As he declared in his speech at last year’s Labour conference, “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.”. Here, too, the parallels with 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'”.
There remains a notable gap between the boldness of Miliband’s rhetoric and the relative timidity of his policy proposals. Reintroducing the 10p tax rate and requiring public sector contractors to pay the living wage will hardly have the transformative effect that Thatcher’s measures did. The ambition, however, is admirable. As Miliband’s advisers are fond of pointing out, the word “privatisation” does not appear in the 1979 Conservative manifesto. In time, they suggest, greater radicalism will come.