Politics has changed dramatically over the last five years. The coalition, the collapse of the LibDems, the rise of UKIP, the Greens and the SNP; all of this, plus voter anger towards the traditional parties has created a challenging environment for exploring new ideas of political, economic and societal renewal.
The current moment has many causes. Some of them are long-term and structural, like the dealignment that has left our main political parties with a diminishing share of the vote. Some of them are current and cultural: the peculiar consequences of the coalition, revulsion caused by the MPs expenses scandal, the narrowing social make-up of the professional political class. But the upshot is clear. Politics feels out of tune with people’s lives and increasingly people are either turning away or seeking new alternatives to the main political parties.
Win, lose or draw on 7 May, how Labour responds to this will define its success or failure in the next parliament. Labour’s last five years have been packed full of the promise of big ideas battling to survive against political compromise. From Blue Labour to community organising, from ‘responsible capitalism’ and ‘predistribution’ to the ‘cost of living crisis’ and the energy price freeze: the story of Ed Miliband’s five years as leader of the opposition is the story of struggle between ideas that could change British politics fundamentally, and British politics’ fundamental ability to resist such change.
But on the eve of either a return to government or continued opposition it is worth reflecting on the sources of hopes and strength that might sustain the party over the next parliament. For these are the forces that can continue to reshape our party and our politics.
Party reform: Movement versus machine politics
The idea that Labour should be a party far broader and deeper than just its 200,000 members was key to the early days of Miliband’s leadership. Through Refounding Labour, the party’s constitution was changed to embrace community activism as a core part of Labour’s mission. This process yielded some sensible reforms, but none of them fundamentally changed Labour’s way of doing business or reset the conversation with the country. Tim Bale’s new book Five Year Mission captures the bathos: “The announcement that, at some point in the future, registered supporters might play a minor role in electing the Labour leader … did not really cut it”.
Miliband rightly received praise for going beyond even Blair in the wake of the Falkirk selections crisis of 2013 in requiring trade union members to opt-in to Labour membership rather than opt-out. The move, which came at a cost of both political capital and cold, hard union cash, was a crucial step on the journey to convert trade unionists from paper supporters into election-fighting activists.
But perhaps the greatest hope of Labour’s spell in opposition has been the Arnie Graf project. Graf, an early mentor to Barack Obama, was commissioned by Ed Miliband in 2011 to conduct a root and branch review of local parties. He subsequently set about working with MPs, candidates, organisers and activists to develop greater connections between Labour at the local level and the communities the party wished to represent. Focusing on training and mentoring, Graf promoted community campaigns based on issues like the living wage, night safety and pay day loans. The idea was to both rebuild trust between Labour and voters by showing that Labour could be judged by its actions, not just its words, and by so doing could grow the capacity of local parties as supporters progressed from single issue campaign alliances with Labour to full blown election activism. Sadly, Graf left the UK after press pressure over questions of his work status. Miliband, despite having praised Graf’s work as essential to Labour’s future and even appearing in an election video with him, did not ensure his return.
Emerging from this mixed picture are clear indications for Labour’s future. Whether Labour wins or not, the party must grow its numbers, promote trust and respect towards its rank and file, and care just as much about delivering change through local campaigns. With the SNP enjoying a membership of over 100,000 (compared to just 10,000 for Scottish Labour) it is clear that mass movement politics practised by a governing political party is still possible. Labour’s challenge over the next five years is to tap the energies of movement politics to inspire volunteers in their hundreds of thousands to join Labour’s cause. To do so the party must change culturally, respecting, empowering and including its members in far more of its decisions and showing the confidence to ‘let go’ and embrace a diversity of organising techniques across a broad range of varying local issue and electoral campaigns. This means a Labour party that practises devolution in its organisational approach as well as its policy offer to prove it trusts its activists with greater influence over all functions of the party – from candidate selections to policy making.
At the heart of Miliband’s politics is a driving hatred of inequality. To his great credit Miliband put the inequality question at the forefront of policy thinking, media interventions and campaigning efforts. Tapping into the wider anger around growing inequality on the left, Miliband committed himself to the 50p top rate of tax as a matter of “morality” during his leadership election, expressed solidarity with the Occupy protestors of 2011 and forced even Cameron and Osborne into defending their government in terms of the inequality debate. The combination of Miliband’s own formidable intellect and his cadre of clever advisers, like Marc Stears and Greg Beales, helped move the party on from its New Labour reputation of redistribution by stealth paired with public praise of wealth.
More than any other single subject, inequality – not just of income but of power as well – has the potential to fire up Labour hearts and inspire a mission of profound social change that reaches far beyond the benefits of just winning elections. Crucial to this has been the understanding that tackling economic inequality is insufficient for a truly radical Labour party. The legacy of Jon Cruddas’s manifesto work will provide rich pickings for a Labour party eager to go further on the devolution of power and budgets. This would mean far greater localism and ‘people-powered public services’ with stronger parent and patient involvement in schools and the NHS. Within government or from opposition, Labour in the next five years would be wise to develop this work by adopting an agenda for fighting inequality as it seeks to establish its defining mission in British politics.
Perhaps no other word so neatly sums up the potential and the pain of Miliband’s time in opposition as ‘predistribution’. Beloved of leftist policy wonks like Jacob Hacker and Jon Cruddas, this is the idea that inequality can be tackled not just after the fact via taxation and redistribution but beforehand, through improved wages and life chances. Predistribution challenged Labour’s decades’- old consensus that the best the party could hope for was to grow the economy, tax the proceeds of wealth and use the welfare state to address the worst excesses of societal and economic failures. After all, New Labour enjoyed over a decade of huge parliamentary majorities and lavish public spending before the financial crisis of 2008 and yet was unable to meet its ambition of halving child poverty, because redistribution of wealth and statist approaches to societal change were proved insufficient to such deep and complex problems.
Rather, through ideas like regional banks to provide access for credit for business growth outside of London, an activist industrial policy to regrow Britain’s manufacturing sector and worker representation on boards to ensure higher pay, pre-distribution sought to seeks more imaginatively about how Labour in government might best shape society. And as Labour looks to its next generation of leaders like Liz Kendall, Lisa Nandy and Gloria De Piero, it is telling that these rising stars have used their portfolios to think creatively about how to achieve social change through a mix of state intervention, market change and partnership with communities. Without question, the attractiveness of Labour of a political agenda that delivers fairness, fights inequality and avoids the crudities of tax and spend, will ensure that predistribution survives the next five years – even if it gets a much-needed name change.
Miliband consigliere Steward Wood once described Milibandism “in three words: markets need rules.” Responsible capitalism is a classic achievement of Miliband. By speaking out against banker bonuses, opposing price gouging energy companies and advocating for a living wage, Miliband set out a vision of how capitalism should embrace its producers not its predators. Sensible market interventions like rent increase restrictions for tenants routinely went through a cycle of being dismissed in the right wing press as socialist before being quietly adopted in some form or another by the Conservatives in government.
With leading Blairites like Lord Sainsbury speaking of ‘progressive capitalism’ and the Times columnist Philip Collins talking of how in the wake of the crash even Blair would have changed course on the role of the state with regard to markets, it is clear that responsible capitalism will be a strong theme in Labour’s policy throughout government or opposition to come.
Movement politics, fighting inequality, predistribution and responsible capitalism: taken together these are the powerful forces that will shape Labour over the decade to come.
Putting them together in a coherent narrative that addresses the crisis of politics and the legacy of the crash has been a challenge for Labour throughout this parliament. For a while, it seemed that ‘one nation’ Labour might allow the party to unite these ideas in broad movement of national renewal against inequality that would reshape the economy and the state alike. But the one nation idea was quietly dropped in favour of a more traditional pro-NHS, anti-Tory general election campaign.
Labour in opposition has chosen to focus far more on the crisis of capitalism than the collapse in political trust which helps explain why its organisational development as a party has been so limited. As a result the party’s direction of travel in policy terms is more promising than its attempts to renew British democracy. If the party is to be successful in government it will need to go far further in embracing cultural and organisational change in order to reconnect with increasingly disillusioned voters.
But to successfully tackle both the crisis of politics and the crisis in the economy, it is vital that Labour’s agenda for the future is not reduced down to a menu of policy choices or dividing lines. Policy must always be an articulation of a deeper political meaning, but this has often been absent. The mission for Labour as a movement should be to embrace a politics of compassion and solidarity for both working people and the disadvantaged within a nation where power is more evenly shared.
As leader of the opposition, Miliband’s legacy is that he correctly identified the forces of movement politics, inequality, predistribution and responsible capitalism as the sources of greatest strength for the left during these years. Miliband may not always have embraced these themes as fully as some might have wished (the ex-Treasury special adviser gene was always too strong for a full blooded radicalism it would seem), but it is to his credit that Labour has a powerful political and intellectual arsenal to draw from.
In May the society will bid a fond farewell to our deputy general secretary, Marcus Roberts. Since 2011, Marcus has made a huge impact at the Fabians Society, transforming our research activities and leading our Labour’s Next Majority programme on political reform. Marcus brought to the Fabians political acumen and good cheer in equal measure. He will be greatly missed by the society and we wish him well for the future.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of the Fabian Review