The left are now more forgiving of Ed Miliband – but many Labour MPs are furious with him

It was poignant sitting opposite the man whose ambition it had been to remake capitalism for an age of austerity.

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During the World Cup, I wrote a cover essay about Englishness and on the day of the semi-final against Croatia I kept receiving invitations from broadcasters to talk about it. If you are not desperate to appear on television or radio or have nothing to sell, broadcast punditry can be tedious: you are poorly paid (if you are paid at all), the broadcasters thrive on outrage and polarised opinions, and it takes up too much time. However, on this occasion, I agreed to do a slot on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, because I like its editor, Phil Jones, and it has an audience of more than seven million. Except there was a slight problem: after I had agreed to appear I was told that Vine was away and the guest presenter would be none other than Ed Miliband, who has reinvented himself as a podcast host.

I had not spoken to Miliband – or, perhaps, more accurately he had not spoken to me – since I published a column in the New Statesman in November 2014 criticising his leadership and warning that he would lead Labour to defeat. The column caused a lot of trouble for him and, in the days after its publication, there was hysterical chatter about a possible coup against Miliband.

After a period of turmoil, he “relaunched” his leadership with a speech in which he cited Nietzsche’s dictum that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He followed this declaration soon afterwards with a visit, accompanied by the BBC’s political editor, to Harlow in Essex – my home town. I had accused Miliband of having no understanding of the aspirations of Essex Man and Woman, among other failings of leadership.

After the publication of my piece one of his henchman passed a message to me, via my political editor, to the effect that there would be no way back for the New Statesman. By the time of the 2015 election campaign, my politics team were not allowed to interview or have access to Miliband. And then he lost, calamitously, as we predicted. Yet right up until the exit poll Miliband believed he would become prime minister: when he saw the projections he proclaimed with incredulity that they must be wrong. He never contemplated a Conservative victory in what was a “progressive age”.

Why isn’t ours a progressive age? Why didn’t the financial crisis create Miliband’s social democratic moment, as he hoped and expected? One answer is that the centre-left parties in Europe fully embraced or were fellow travellers of neoliberalism. Blair, Clinton, Schröder and others consolidated rather than challenged market fundamentalism. Blair proselytised for free markets and free movement and liberal globalisation.

My view back then was that Miliband had misread and misunderstood the present moment. As John Gray wrote, he was aspiring to lead a country that did not exist. He underestimated the Ukip insurgency and had little interest in or understanding of the forces driving Scottish nationalism, a fateful error as Labour would be routed in Scotland in 2015. Nor did he anticipate that the financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed would empower the right, including the nativist or populist far right. He believed Ukip and Farageism were a greater threat to the Tories than to Labour. 

Was I wrong about Ed Miliband? That’s what I was wondering as I was reintroduced to him at Broadcasting House on that recent summer afternoon – he was warm enough, his voice was animated but his dark eyes were cold as he peered at me over his microphone. It was poignant sitting opposite the man whose ambition it had been to remake capitalism for an age of austerity as he asked me questions about the political significance of Gareth Southgate’s England.

Talk to Labour MPs and you will discover they are generally furious with Miliband. Many of them are demoralised and they blame him in large part for their misfortune – for losing the election in 2015, for introducing the new rules by which the party elects its leader, for failing to honour the achievements of New Labour. Nor can they understand why Labour’s only Jewish leader has not intervened during the party’s protracted anti-Semitism crisis.

The left is more forgiving of Miliband, however, and one senses he would be welcomed back into the shadow cabinet, even though he called for Jeremy Corbyn to resign in 2016. John McDonnell, whom I profiled last week, believes Miliband was broadly correct in his analysis of the financial crisis but was doomed by excessive caution. “He gave us austerity-lite,” McDonnell told me.

Ten years on from the crash, the consequences of the financial crisis are still working themselves out, still yet to be fully understood. One reason the far right are rising in so many European countries is that people are turning to the nation state or strong men to protect them against the havoc being wreaked by the forces of globalisation. The radical left are rising, too, because they never made peace with neoliberalism and desire fundamental economic and political transformation. Emmanuel Macron is often cited as a source of inspiration to centrists – but he won only 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election and owes his position as much to the vagaries of the voting system as he does to any great fondness for his ardently pro-EU worldview.

What is certain is that moderate social democracy is in retreat – just this week the Social Democrats in Sweden (whose power was once hegemonic) recorded their worst election result in a century. And those MPs who aspire to take back control of their party will have an interminable wait: Labour is now a party of the radical left. I wonder what Ed Miliband thinks about that.

Stephen Bush is away

Jason Cowley’s book of essays, “Reaching for Utopia: Making Sense of An Age of Upheaval”, is out now from Salt Publishing

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism