Former Labour leader Ed Miliband talks to Conor Pope about the IPPR report, bringing about a paradigm shift and that ‘predatory capitalism’ speech in 2011
‘Am I allowed to quote Gramsci in Progress?’
It is less than a minute into the chat with Ed Miliband before he raises the potential of quoting Antonio Gramsci, the 20th century Italian Marxist philosopher. He is invoked before water is even put on the table; a quick reminder of the upbringing Miliband had as the son of socialist academics.
‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’ is the phrase the former Labour leader reaches for, taken from Gramsci’s prison notebooks after being arrested by Italy’s fascist police force.
Miliband uses this idea to agree with the analysis, set out in the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Prosperity and Justice report, that the country is due another major paradigm shift in the functioning of our economy, on par with the 1940s postwar consensus and the neoliberalism institutionalised over 18 years of Conservative rule from 1979. ‘The report is very good at framing that’, he believes. ‘The period we are going through and have gone through since the financial crisis is: what is the new paradigm?’
However, in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, he sees this as an international discomfiture, and the example he turns to is not a domestic one.
‘[Donald] Trump in a way is in some sense a morbid symptom, and I think it’s a reflection of the fact that on the right, as well as the left, there’s a recognition that the [Ronald] Reagan-[Margaret] Thatcher model has, at the very least, run its course, and hasn’t delivered. And free markets, deregulation, privatisation, that that formula isn’t working – and the question is, what is going to replace it?’ September marks 10 years since the collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank, the trigger of the biggest economic crisis in living memory. Yet no obvious major political shift immediately followed. In the United Kingdom, David Cameron, a Conservative with a mainstream rightwing Thatcherite economic agenda, became prime minister; while the United States elected Barack Obama, who was not radically outside the Democratic party’s consensus, as president.
Things that were controversial when I was leader, about wage stagnation, predatory companies and all that, in a way they’re part of the accepted wisdom of public debate. Nobody argues about those things anymore.
The shocks – Trump, Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn – have come more recently, and it is unlikely we have seen the last of them. Given many now see a major restructuring of the economy, politics and society as both inevitable and necessary, the big question is, as Miliband himself asks: ‘Why wasn’t the response to the financial crisis to immediately put that new thing in place? … It’s taken a long time for us to get to the point where this is part of the mainstream conversation, I suppose.’
‘Things that were controversial when I was leader, about wage stagnation, predatory companies and all that, in a way they’re part of the accepted wisdom of public debate. Nobody argues about those things anymore. They don’t argue about the analysis anymore, so much. They argue about, what are the answers?’
But is the problem with the Gramsci quote the implication that there is an inevitability that ‘the new’ will be born? That is why building a coalition of support behind something like this is so important, and ensuring that coalition is broad – as IPPR has done with its range of commissioners, including trade unionists and chief executive officers, ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’, leftwingers and conservatives.
For Miliband, this shows that a coalition can be built across the country for fairly radical change, and that it can start with some consensus building in our own party. ‘Dare I say it, there’s also a coalition in the Labour party for this. I think that’s very striking.’
He cites Rachel Reeves’ work on the ‘everyday economy’, and argues that the response to Prosperity and Justice shows something interesting. ‘If you look at the reaction to this report from Richard Angell to John McDonnell … it’s been praised, and I think it shows that actually there’s a thirst and an appetite across politics and across the Labour party for these kinds of ideas.
I’m not in the generally looking back business, but I think to be self-critical, I think I was stronger on the analysis … The scale of the prescriptions weren’t big enough.
After the summer the party has had, Miliband may be unduly optimistic about the desire from some to find a common ground in the party, but he contrasts the positivity from Labour figures to the Commission on Economic Justice’s conclusions to the split in the Conservative party. Not over Brexit, but something that could be more disruptive in the long-term: economics. ‘The Tories are caught between the free-market belief that many of them have, and the fact that they feel like the public is demanding something different’, he explains.
This is an interesting notion: while the major divisions in the Labour party have been primarily along economic lines for around a century, this could be the start of that no longer being the case. Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ internal friction has been around Europe not the economy for decades. Are they about to have two major tussles, rather than one?
Obviously, Labour unity is not so easy, and must come from the top. But these remarks show what Miliband believes some of the legacy of his leadership was. He carefully walks a tightrope: he knows he must take responsibility for the result of the 2015 general election, yet does not want to disown the manifesto – which was not particularly bad in policy terms – and, as he makes clear, he also feels some level of vindication about the arguments he made while leader. ‘I totally defend the 2015 manifesto. I think there were lots of good things in it, and they added up to something important, but more in aggregate than on their own, and I was always aware of that mismatch … I was trying to navigate between reassurance and radicalism, and that’s tricky.’
‘I’m not in the generally looking back business, but I think to be self-critical, I think I was stronger on the analysis … The scale of the prescriptions weren’t big enough.’ He counts these among the ‘mistakes that were made up to 2015 [that] are my mistakes, and I take responsibility for them.’
Although he does not say it in so many words, there are parts that he has felt vindicated on. ‘It’s hard when you’re making a new argument, which is controversial … It didn’t necessarily land as well as it should have done, but [the response to] my “predatory capitalism” 2011 [Labour party annual] conference speech was “WTF?”.’ Miliband’s keynote speech that year was briefed as the most radical speech by a Labour leader since Clement Attlee, but was received with widespread scepticism; the Guardian’s diplomatic reading of it was ‘high-risk’.
‘Now it’s completely mainstream’, he contends. So where was the failure, given the apparent ubiquity of these arguments now? ‘I’m sure I could have done a better job in getting allies for it, definitely. But I think it’s also this thing about the scale of the response. I think that is what is particularly good about this report, and I think this is particularly good about the moment that we’re in, is that I think people feel more liberated to think bigger about the answers.’
Wealth taxes is one area he feels the left, in particular, has neglected. ‘A fault of all of us on the left is we spent a lot more time talking about income inequality, and income inequality as a problem, but it’s much less extreme than wealth inequality, in terms of the scale, and we’ve just spent less time on this.’ The problem is getting support for wealth taxes – people do not like the idea of being taxed on something they have already earned.
‘As in all tax measures, the key question in this is who wins and who loses?’ Miliband says. ‘That’s what people judge it on. Inheritance tax-type proposals have a particular issue, which is, do people feel you’re starting off with the rich and them coming after them?’
So, how does he advise progressives to win the argument? ‘[With] not just emphasis on the wealth tax proposal, but what’s going to be done with the money. You want the emphasis on the benefit, not just who’s paying for it.’
He believes that ‘one of the big scandals that is not really talked about is that the tax system overall is very unprogressive’ when comparing how much the lowest earners pay compared to the highest. Part of the answer there, he thinks, is one of the themes of his leadership that – explicitly, at least – has fallen away since. ‘We haven’t mentioned the P-word. “Predistribution” is a big part of this. You’ve got to hardwire fairness into your economy.’
That is something that the centre-left has wanted to do for generations. The promise of being able to enact change that can outlast the government that implements it has always been the goal. The question now, then, is this: does Labour finally agree on how to do it?
Conor Pope is the deputy editor of Progress. He tweets @Conorpope
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