As the election gets closer, the question of whether there is such a thing as Milibandism – and if so what it might be – is beginning to be asked. I think there is such a thing – and in the past few months, since the Labour Party conference in particular, it is becoming increasingly clear what Labour under Ed Miliband’s leadership is developing into. And Milibandism is looking like a more radical, more grounded and more interesting phenomenon than might be apparent at first sight; and there is I believe increasing evidence that it is beginning to set the terms of political debate.
Some aspects of Milibandism are very clear. Emma Burnell, on her Scarlet Standard blog, has described the key aspects in two posts – one examining how Ed Miliband’s leadership has moved away from New Labour, the second focussing on how his emerging platform has the Tories running scared. As she notes, there are three obvious policy strands; the focus on the cost of living crisis, the pledge to freeze energy prices, and Labour’s refusal to back military intervention in Syria. To this Burnell adds a fourth; a move to a smaller but more enabling state. Unpack all of those a bit, and one can see a coherent and, importantly, deeply radical, and above all popular narrative.
First, the cost of living crisis. Labour has rightly recognised that living standards for most people are falling more quickly and in a more sustained way than for more than a hundred years. Part of its response lies in the proposal to freeze domestic energy prices. But, more fundamentally, Labour is starting to talk again about pay. And although the immediate focus is on the way in which living standards have fallen under the Coalition, there’s a much bigger issue here. For the first time, a mainstream party is opening up the longer-term debate about pay, and about how nearly all the benefits of economic growth since the late 1970s have been realised in rents – profits, dividends and so on, paid in respect of assets – than in wages. We are starting to hear about the need for a living wage.
And there is a powerful irony at work here. Labour – to my huge relief and doubtless that of many others – has stopped using the phrase “hard working families” and is leaving that particular kind of dog-whistle to the Tories, where it belongs. But when the Tories talk about supporting those who work hard, their economic record in government shows them to be overwhelmingly a party of rentiers. And that division is becoming increasingly the stuff of mainstream political debate.
Second, energy prices. As many people have noted, this is fundamental stuff – for the first time since Neil Kinnock was leader Labour is talking about intervening decisively in failing markets, rather than accepting that the market is king.
And finally the rejection of armed intervention in Syria – Labour making a case which both acknowledges public opinion and firmly backs international law. Here was a decisive and obvious rejection of Blairism.
And there’s quite a lot of deep irony here: opponents of Labour on the left – in the Green Party and elsewhere – are very quick to deploy the word “neoliberalism” to attack Labour, but if one takes the word at its true meaning rather than as a rather lazy shorthand, if you take these policies together you have what looks like the beginnings of an intellectual assault on almost every key principle of neoliberalism. Labour is implicitly asking the fundamental question; how should the product of society be shared? And the answer is looking increasingly that wage-earners should have their fair share of national wealth; that Governments should be able to intervene to when markets provide undesirable outcomes; that international law trumps liberal interventionism. These are things we haven’t heard in mainstream politics for a long while – and certainly not from Tony Blair’s New Labour.
Of course there are still big issues to be resolved. There is a set of issues that I’d group together under the general heading of “citizenship” – they include welfare (which is, as Beveridge realised, about what citzens are entitled to as of right), immigration and security where the break is less decisively obvious. Emma Burnell, in the first of the blog posts I mentioned, refers to the way in which a Milibandist state would be smaller and more agile, less paternalistic than now, intervening earlier and more selectively. I’d argue that achieving that involves stepping back from the apparatus of state control and surveillance that flourished under both New Labour and the current coalition; and creating a more generous approach social security that is based on entitlement rather than exception, and in which the universal principle removes the need for a cumbersome apparatus of assessment and sanction. Both of those seem to me wholly consistent with what we already know of the Miliband project, although they require some fairly fundamental challenges to the way in which political debate is currently conducted. I am very comfortable with the idea of a large state, but I accept that a smaller, more active state, intervening early rather than reluctantly as a last resort, could bring huge political benefits.
If this is a Milibandist agenda, it certainly has the potential to be radical, provided Labour sticks to its guns in office; it’s grounded; and most of all, it has the Tories running scared. The announcement of a cap on payday lending shows the Tories’ fear. Usury rationalised as freedom is in the warp and weft of Tory economics; and some of the best-known payday lenders are Tory donors. Having rejected reform of this market for so long, the only rational explanation for their U-turn is that they are terrified of the ground Labour has made on cost-of-living issues, and of the potency of an economic argument that is grounded in authentic experience.
There is still a long way to go. I’d be the first to argue that there are many economic issues where Labour has to follow its natural instincts and be bolder; but what is so fascinating is the way in which Ed Miliband is articulating an agenda whose logic points towards something more radical, more grounded and less deferential to market ideals. And, for the first time for many years – certainly since before New Labour was articulated – Labour is starting to set the terms of the debate.