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Early one morning in September 2012 I visited Ed Miliband at home in north London. He had just returned from holiday in Greece and this was to be his first interview of the new political season, his big re-entry. He remembers the interview as the one in which he was photographed “sitting in the bushes”. I remember it as the occasion on which he showcased his new Big Idea – “predistribution”, a concept adapted from the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker.
Having commendably held his party together when many had predicted it would split into warring factions, Miliband had grand plans. His mission was to change the rules of capitalism and to direct markets for the common good. Inequality was the scourge of our age, he told me. People felt the system was rigged against them. But the financial crisis and the Great Recession had created a social-democratic moment.
“For me it’s a centre-left moment because people think there’s something unfair and unjust about our society. You’ve got to bring the vested interest to heel; you’ve got to change the way the economy works. That’s our opportunity.” Not once did he mention Ukip or even countenance the possibility that a right-wing populist insurgency would erupt into the space that progressive politics hoped to occupy.
Miliband has a deterministic, quasi-Marxist analysis of our present ills. The Ukip insurgency, Scottish nationalism, the hollowing out of political parties, Islamist radicalisation, the loathing and distrust of elites: all are manifestations of a failed economic model.
He is a politician of unusual self-confidence. Considering his appalling approval ratings and the lack of enthusiasm many of his MPs have for him, he has exceptional resilience. It’s as if he is driven by a sense of manifest destiny, always dangerous in a politician. But what if he is wrong? What if the majority of people do not share his world-view? What if they want something more prosaic: economic competence, prosperity for themselves and their children, social justice and their government to protect them against the havoc being wreaked by globalisation? Miliband would argue that this is what he is offering through “responsible capitalism”. Yet there exists a gulf between the radicalism of his rhetoric and the low-toned incrementalism of his policies.
From the beginning Labour was always an uneasy coalition of the organised working class and the Fabian or Hampstead intellectual. Later it also became the party of public-sector workers, social liberals and dispossessed minorities. Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. Politics for him must seem at times like an extended PPE seminar: elevated talk about political economy and the good society.
At present, he and Labour seem trapped. His MPs sense it and the polls reflect it. Ukip is attracting support in the party’s old working-class northern English heartlands and winning converts in key Home Counties swing seats that Labour would once have hoped to win. In Scotland the SNP has become the natural party of government.
In a recent interview, Alex Salmond was scathing about Miliband, describing him as “more unelectable” than Michael Foot. He had none of “Foot’s wonderful qualities or intelligence. He’s more unelectable than Neil Kinnock was; and Kinnock had considerable powers of oratory, and didn’t lack political courage.” One would expect Salmond to be dismissive of a Labour leader but it is worrying for the party that even allies now speak similarly of him and his failings.
Miliband is losing the support of the left (to the SNP, to the Greens) without having formed a broader coalition of a kind that defined the early Blair-Brown years. Most damaging, I think, is that he seldom seems optimistic about the country he wishes to lead. Miliband speaks too often of struggle and failure, of people as victims – and it’s true that life is difficult for many. But a nation also wants to feel good about itself and to know in which direction it is moving. Reflecting many years afterwards on Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, Clement Attlee said: “We were looking towards the future. The Tories were looking towards the past.”
Labour wins well when its leader seems most in tune with the times and can speak for and to the people about who they are and what they want to be in the near future: Attlee in 1945, Wilson in 1966, Blair in 1997.
Miliband does not have a compelling personal story to tell the electorate, as Thatcher did about her remarkable journey from the grocer’s shop in Grantham and the values that sustained her along the way or Alan Johnson does about his rise from an impoverished childhood in west London. I went to Oxford to study PPE, worked for Gordon Brown, became a cabinet minister and then leader of the party does not quite do it. None of this would matter were Miliband in manner and approach not so much the product of this narrow background.
He understands and has analysed astutely capitalism’s destructive potential but not perhaps its resilience and ability to absorb shocks. As Lenin said, there are no “absolutely hopeless situations” for capitalism, as we are again discovering. There are deep problems for Labour and for all social-democratic parties that transcend any one leader. But as we enter an unstable era of multiparty politics, the fragmentation of the British state and intensifying Euroscepticism, Miliband’s chief problem is not policy but tone. He needs to find a distinctive voice to articulate people’s feelings about the present moment. And he might have to accept before long – or the electorate will force him to – that Europe’s social-democratic moment, if it ever existed, is fading into the past.