Miliband's inequality speech shows he will be a participant in Labour's future

The former leader has quickly taken up the cause he championed in office.

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Ed Miliband lost the election but he is still determined to win the argument. In his first Commons speech since resigning as leader, he repeated that he took "full responsibility" for the defeat, called for his party to do "hard and painful thinking" and praised David Cameron for defying "the pollsters and the pundits". But he soon returned to the cause that defined his leadership: inequality and the need for the state to tackle it. 

"A huge question facing all western democracies in the next five, 10, 20 years is whether we are comfortable with the huge disparities that exist, whether we are fated to have them and whether we want to even try to confront them. Personally, I believe we will have to ... I believe this is an issue for the right and left," he said. "Personally I believe we will have to, and I think this an issue for right and left. The old idea was that inequality was necessary for economic growth but we now know that the deep structural challenges of our economy, of low productivity, are bound up with high inequality". 

As Miliband repeated the arguments of past speeches, one sensed that he felt liberated by no longer having to do so as opposition leader. Yet as before, there was a marked disparity between the scale of the problem he outlined and the solutions he offered. He called for the state to take a far more active role in guiding the Low Pay Commission (describing in-work poverty as "the modern scourge of our time") and emphasised the need for a progressive tax system and a "compassionate" welfare state but failed to offer anything more novel. Labour's acceptance of the government's planned £23,000 benefit cap is a sign of how the traditional means of poverty reduction are being eroded. 

He did, however, alight on promising political territory when he commended Cameron for his pledge to be a "one nation" prime minister and said he would be judged on whether he fulfilled this promise. Too often in the past, Labour has devoted itself to attacking the Tories' motives (an argument that rarely persuades the unconverted) when it is far more effective to accept their sincerity but challenge their policy failures.

Returning to the theme of his 2012 conference speech, Miliband praised the "admirable" one nation tradition ("He should never have dropped that," one Labour shadow minister told me afterwards) and questioned whether Cameron was really capable of embodying it. "Can 'one nation' really be consistent with making those on welfare shoulder £12bn of the burden of deficit reduction and those at the top nothing at all? Can ‘one nation’ really be squared with cuts to tax credits with its impact on working people? Can 'one nation' be squared with a welfare system which is so often harsh, brutal and brutalising? Can 'one nation' be squared with a country where 1 million people go to food banks?"

Miliband's early return to the Commons and his vow to help hold the government "to account" shows that he does not intend to fade meekly into the background. The most widely cited example is that of Iain Duncan Smith, who reinvented himself as a social crusader after his resignation as Conservative leader (establishing the Centre For Social Justice and later returning to the shadow cabinet). No one can doubt Miliband's moral commitment to tackling inequality and, at just 45, his understandable desire to continue his political career - he will be a participant in Labour's future. Liz Kendall's declaration, following his speech, that "He is right that inequality is a major issue of our time" shows that she recognises the need to pay heed to his legacy (he remains popular among party activists). Indeed, if Miliband has drawn any comfort from the post-election period, it will be the acknowledgment by Blairites past and present (including Blair himself) that he was right to put the issue of inequality on the agenda. Whether he enjoys more success in providing solutions will be the test of his post-leadership life. 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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