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“Labour needs to go big”: Ed Miliband on why his party isn’t doomed

The former Labour leader reflects on the state of his party, his own record, and how to take on the Tories.

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“The hardest thing” about losing a general election, Ed Miliband tells me, “is the loss of a sense of purpose. You're going at 100 miles an hour, and suddenly you’re not. Nobody cares what you think, or what you say, or what you do, really, apart from to write a nasty story that you’re depressed or you’ve grown a beard” or “gone to Ibiza”. The papers run stories saying “that it’s all your fault” and “you just think ‘what am I going to do now?’”.

Five months after Labour’s election defeat in 2015, Miliband found himself forlorn and bearded on a community organising course, a “fish out of water” among the activists and praying the beard would conceal his identity. But after days of feeling cynical and painfully self-conscious, “I gradually felt like the light came on. It sort of gave me my idealism back.” 

It would be the beginning of a journey to discover and champion ways of creating change that didn’t involve being the leader of the Labour party. “I don’t need to be the leader to fight for things,” he says. “I’ve never believed that. It’s not my model of politics. That’s not the model of politics in the book.” That epiphany forms one of the closing reflections of his new book, Go Big: How To Fix Our World, a bold, rigorous exploration of ways of implementing political and social change, peppered with reflections on being Labour leader and anecdotes from his career as an MP and special adviser, including the occasional, slightly painful, joke about bacon sandwiches or having no personality.  

The book is simultaneously idealistic – even inspiring – about the potential for creating change, and also pessimistic about the capacity for change enacted through formal political and party structures. It reads rather like a call for optimism even if Labour is doomed to be out of power for a long time. “It’s not to say it’s a substitute for having a progressive national government, but it does…” he trails off. “Change is possible.” 

Miliband is sitting in a deep, black armchair in his office high up in the Houses of Parliament, overlooking a scaffolded Big Ben. For all that he now sees himself as part of a “movement of people” pushing for change, he is still here, in the world of Westminster politics. He spent 2015-2020, when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader, quietly on the back benches, but now finds himself once more on the frontline of party politics, as shadow business secretary in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet.   

“It’s really hard when you get knocked down to get back up,” he says, admitting that “it wasn’t an easy decision” to return. “But I remember after Hillary Clinton lost the election. Do you know Kate McKinnon, [the comedian] who plays Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live [a well-known American sketch show]? She sang this Hallelujah, very hauntingly, right at the beginning, and she ended by saying, ‘I’m not giving up and neither should you.’” He looks me right in the eye.

During his re-entry into public life following the 2015 defeat, Miliband has been vulnerable and frank, both about what he thinks he got wrong as leader, and how hard it was. Yet when I speak to him, he bristles whenever he finds my wording too strong or if I imply that the experience was particularly bruising. “I’m not jaded,” he says of Westminster politics, warmly but firmly. "I'm not haunted,” he insists later, by his decision not to abandon Labour’s tuition fees policy. “It’s more that I want to use it as an example, because people sometimes say ‘when you say you should be bolder, what does it mean?’.” 

I suspect that, after weeks of book promotion and years of introspection-on-demand about what went wrong for him as leader, he would like some credit for the things he got right. He doesn’t want to be spoken to as though he’s a loser. Yes, “my solutions weren’t bold enough”, he acknowledges, but he is defiant about having correctly identified the problems, recalling speeches at Labour conference about inequality, the cost of living, or his “One Nation” speech in 2012, each one the product of months of preparation and thinking “quite deeply” about the state of the nation and what needed to change. 

“I don’t look back on it and think I didn’t know who I was, or I lost touch with what I believed”, he insists. “Maybe it was stronger on the analysis than the prescription. But that [analysis] was really important.” 

[See also: Marc Stears: “Ed Miliband’s political agenda is now globally accepted”]

“Remember, at the time, people weren’t saying ‘this guy’s really moderate and incremental’. It was all, ‘he’s Red Ed. Oh, my God, he wants to freeze energy prices. Oh, my God, he wants to go on about inequality. Oh, my God, he wants to talk about predatory companies. Oh, my God he wants to take on Murdoch’,” he says. “It was highly controversial. I was living in a Marxist universe and now I can’t find anyone who disagrees with me.”

“In the 1980s, Labour was in opposition and the battleground of politics was all on the right. Now Kwasi Kwarteng [the business secretary, whom Miliband shadows] has to pretend that he’s had this Damascene conversion to workers’ rights! He’s not going to do a damn thing about it,” he adds with a smirk. “But the battleground of politics, at least on these economic issues, is on the left.”

Miliband repeatedly emphasises that he takes “full responsibility” for Labour’s defeat in 2015. “I didn’t persuade enough people that I should be prime minister and Cameron shouldn’t”. But he is willing to acknowledge external constraints as well as his own internal conflicts. He implies it was simply too soon for some of that analysis about inequality and climate change to resonate with voters: “austerity was only four or five years in and we’d had the financial crisis on our watch”. 

He was constrained, he argues, by the radical “Red Ed” portrait painted of him in the media, but also by “the tension” of “trying to move the party on from New Labour” and “ripping up the old settlement” while keeping the party behind him. “Paradoxically, I don’t love conflict. I wanted to keep everybody on board. Sometimes I had unity at the price of clarity.” It sounds like a rather firm nod to members of his shadow cabinet such as Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, who were to his right politically. Miliband doesn’t approve of my naming individual shadow cabinet members, but agrees there were “constraints by circumstance, definitely”. 

Now, as a prominent member of the shadow cabinet, Miliband is trying to be “a support” to Starmer and his colleagues. “I don't like ‘elder statesman’ but I fear I’m sort of heading in that direction”. 

“Anyone who has my job has my support, and a degree of sympathy as well. You get all kinds of advice. Lots of people think they know better, think that if only you were listening to them [you would be performing better].” I wonder if “my job” was a Freudian slip. 

Although no longer in charge, Miliband remains quietly influential on Labour strategy, as one of the authors of the 2019 Labour Together report, the party’s election review, examining not only the 2019 defeat but the longer-term trends of Labour decline in parts of the country, especially in Scotland and the north of England. It outlines a strategy for building a winning electoral coalition, and is worth understanding as a vague blueprint for Labour’s approach under Starmer. When the party suffered electoral humiliation in the Hartlepool by-election in May this year and Starmer hastily conducted a botched reshuffle, it was to Labour Together commissioners that he turned, promoting many of them, such as Lucy Powell and Shabana Mahmood, within the shadow cabinet.  

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

The strategy outlined in the review is often characterised by political commentators as one of making a bold offer of fundamental economic change that unites Labour’s target voters, while dialling down the cultural issues that divide them. Does Miliband think that is a fair assessment? “It’s hard to have these discussions in theory, because what does that mean about culture? We were saying that big economic change is the way to unite our coalition and that is the thing that matters most. That’s the thing to really emphasise for our coalition. I don’t like talking about these cultural issues without saying what they are.”

I press him on the example of trans rights. Isn’t Labour’s current strategy to have a policy in favour of Gender Recognition Act reform, but quietly to avoid talking about it or championing it? “I think we should have a policy in favour of trans rights! We do!” he implores. “And I don’t think people in Doncaster are not going to vote for us because we're in favour of trans rights. I mean, honestly. People who are in favour of trans rights aren’t saying that that should be the major thing that we talk about all the time, they’re saying that if we’re a party that believes in equality, that we should be in favour of trans rights. I believe that.” 

Miliband accepts “to an extent” that Labour finds these issues trickier than economic ones, given, as he says, where the battleground is for economic issues, but concludes: “There are lots of injustices in our country: racial injustice, class injustice. They also intersect with each other. We can be against all those injustices and build a coalition. I am completely convinced about that.”

To win, though, Labour needs to be bolder. “If you think about what Labour needs to do, and it’s a collective effort, I think we need to go big. I think we need to argue for big change. That is the right thing for the country. I also think it’s the right thing electorally and for Labour.”

“People want primary colours change. Our job is to go out and say, ‘Look, this is what we think needs to change about Britain. And you can decide whether you want it or not. But you know, the Tories are going to say they want to level up, the Tories are going to say they want to tackle inequalities, but they’re not really going to do it. We are.”

Miliband is particularly invested in this strategy working as the MP for Doncaster North, which had one of the highest pro-Leave majorities in the 2016 Brexit referendum and where he saw his majority slashed from 14,024 to 2,370 in 2019. (He is, however, keen to emphasise that the Labour vote held up in the most recent local elections there.) 

"I always come back to my Brexit experience of Doncaster," he says. "People say, 'was it about the EU, was it about immigration?' And of course, those were issues. But fundamentally, I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with people where they would say: 'I want a new beginning. I want something different for my kids. I want industry back here. I want investment.' "The next election is going to be a change election. And the question is, who can be the most plausible agents of change? The Tories are not going to go into the next election saying, 'it's all done. Britain's fine thank you'. It's a different Tory party in the following sense that they want to say to so-called Red Wall areas, ‘we can tackle these inequalities, we can tackle these changes’."

But "the answer on the Tories" is "the gap between rhetoric and reality. The right are good at saying ‘we share Labour's cause’. Traditional cause: inequality, insecurity, workers’ rights, green [issues]. They are bad at the reality. Frankly, at the best of times government is difficult in terms of delivery. But particularly if it’s a government that isn’t really that serious.”

That’s why, despite the large gap between the Conservatives and Labour in the polls (as big as 18 points in one YouGov poll at the end of May), Miliband says he doesn’t believe that Starmer is doomed to end up bearded and forlorn after the next election. “I think the government is more vulnerable than people think, personally. And I think the next election is far from decided.” 

He still strikes me, however, as more inspired by change driven by movements of people, rather than expecting a return to government one day soon. “There’s just so much to fight for,” he says. “If I can just move the dial a little bit, even from opposition, it’s worth it.”

[See also: Gordon Brown: How to mend a failing world]

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.