On the day of Ed Miliband’s resignation, I texted one of his closest aides to ask why he wouldn’t stay on as caretaker while a new leader was chosen. The reply came back fast: “He was just too tired and had taken on too much for his family. He’s a really good man, Sunny. The likes of which we just don’t see in politics.” They were right. You could see it in Miliband’s eyes – despite the deep anguish at losing, he felt a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
A few years ago, Miliband had joked at a party at the annual Labour conference that the only endorsements he had when running for leader were from a magazine (New Statesman) and a website (Liberal Conspiracy). The audience laughed along but he had a point: the former Labour leader was always painfully aware his allies in the media could be counted on one hand.
Now that he has gone the knives have come out faster than at a cooking show. His detractors want to bury Miliband’s time as leader and move on. His ideas had been repudiated by the public, they say. But this won’t prove as easy as they think and he may end up casting a bigger shadow over the future than they hope.
Despite the predictable Blairite cliches (“the politics of aspiration”, “aspiration, aspiration, aspiration”, “aspiration with a cherry on top please”) – the world has changed since 1997. For a bunch of politicians who advocate moving with the times, Blair and his coterie have a remarkably stagnant vocabulary.
Ed Miliband’s central argument, that the British economy no longer lifted the working class, is more true today than it has ever been. Social mobility in Britain has become a joke and worsened over the last five years. The Tories claim they had fixed the economy, but merely offered an illusion of recovery with low paid jobs topped up with a housing bubble.
Miliband may not have been able to communicate it well, but we all knew he had a point. Even dyed-in-the-wool Tories such as Fraser Nelson and Charles Moore accepted that. “The Conservative answer to rising concern about inequality has been to ignore it. This has been a grave error. Michael Gove has been fighting a lonely battle for Conservatives to develop a response; he now describes inequality as ‘the great social and political challenge of our time’,” wrote Fraser Nelson just a few weeks ago.
The intellectual strength and confidence of Miliband was such that he forced many on the Right to recognise he had a point, even if some of his own colleagues refused to accept it. As the BBC’s Robert Peston wrote:
“He isn’t resorting to the traditional left-wing solutions of nationalisation, significantly increased state spending, incestuous deals with trade unions or penal increases in tax rates. What he is attempting to do – perhaps naively, perhaps clumsily – is encourage competition, give more power to consumers, nudge up the minimum wage and take on vested interests.”
Miliband may be gone, and his style sound rejected, but the economic problems that underlined his politics haven’t gone away. And they won’t go away however much Blair hopes. The ‘cost of living crisis’ still exists, despite the election.
Economic populism is on the rise across Europe and the United States (Warren just defeated Obama on the TPP trade deal) because of real structural problems that most economists now recognise. It was this populism that obliterated Labour in Scotland, not just nationalism, and it is very likely UKIP will try and seize the opportunity in England next. Bland cliches about “aspirations” won’t make those problems go away, or quieten the simmering anger that many working class Labour voters feel. They will come back only if we address their frustration at being left behind at a rapidly changing world.
Admittedly, a key reason why Labour has difficulty reaching its white working class base is cultural, not economic. Ed Miliband was always uncomfortable with the debate on English identity, even as many of us urged him onwards. Furthemore, he was was not an effective communicator nor a charismatic leader. His team made a fair amount of mistakes that were ridiculed even before the election, and were blind-sided by the SNP coalition scare-mongering.
But Miliband had the courage to firmly put his finger on the biggest challenge facing the Labour party this generation. The next leader may choose to ignore this challenge and take us in a different direction, but sooner or later someone will have to confront it. He may be gone but Miliband’s legacy will continue to define the party.