Center-left parties should learn that small-bore solutions are a waste of time.
August 18, 2021
Aug 18, 2021
17 Min read time
Center-left parties should learn that small-bore solutions are a waste of time.
GO BIG: How to Fix Our World
Bodley Head, $25.12 (cloth)
In 2010 the era of “New Labour” ended in the United Kingdom when Gordon Brown’s Labour Party lost the general election to David Cameron’s Conservatives. Although Brown’s response to the global financial crisis was in some regards decisive and clear-minded, the party succumbed to Cameron’s charge that they were to blame for economic mismanagement in the period leading up to the crisis. More fundamentally, though, Labour under Brown had failed to elaborate a compelling vision of a different, post-crisis economic settlement for the UK. The decade since then has been difficult and tumultuous, as Labour has struggled to redefine itself politically and re-establish itself as a prospective party of government.
The centrist attempt to sustain neoliberal capitalism has been tested to destruction.
The defining early moment of that story has taken on a certain mythic quality, as two brothers—David and Ed Miliband, sons of the distinguished Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband—fought to lead the party. David, older by four years, was the candidate of the party’s establishment and centrist wing: he served as a Foreign Secretary under Brown and, before that, director of the 10 Downing Street Policy Unit under Tony Blair. Ed had been Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change under Gordon Brown’s premiership and ran a campaign that stressed economic egalitarianism and the limitations of Blair’s New Labour project. Ed won by the narrowest of margins—50.7 percent to 49.3 percent—on the fourth round of voting in the party’s complicated “electoral college” voting system, with David having led in every previous voting round. I was in the conference hall in Manchester in September 2010 as the results were announced. David bore a fixed grin, while his brother Ed looked ashen faced, as if fully struck by the magnitude of what lay ahead of him: trying to lead a deeply divided party whose establishment’s candidate had suffered an unexpected defeat.
Ed Miliband’s victory in 2010 ensured that the Labour Party did not rush headlong toward technocratic centrism, but instead kept a sense of itself as a potentially radical political force. Yet, as Ed himself has been quick to admit in recent years, during his time as leader the party lacked sufficient boldness and clarity, both in the story it told about the pathologies of neoliberal capitalism and in its policy prescriptions. Miliband himself deserves much less blame for these inadequacies than he receives; his position was almost impossible. He lacked the legitimacy that a clearer victory in the leadership election would have provided and was surrounded by party officials and parliamentary colleagues who—barring a few exceptions—were politically timorous and intellectually incurious. These officials were happy to remain in the comfort zone of the previous third-way “New Labour” period.
During Miliband’s leadership, many remarked that his political project lacked any real political “outriders,” with too much responsibility falling on him to define and popularize a renewed version of egalitarian social democracy. His time as leader ended with crushing disappointment in the 2015 general election, when Cameron’s Conservatives won an overall majority and cast aside the Liberal Democrats (who had been their coalition partners during 2010–15) to form a majority government. Miliband had managed to gain only 1.4 percent on Brown’s 2010 general election vote for the Labour Party, while the mechanics of the UK’s voting system (and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats) resulted in the party’s loss of twenty-six parliamentary seats.
Since the 2015 loss the tumultuousness of British politics has intensified, with the 2016 Brexit vote and the rise and fall of Corbynism, which brought the Labour Party firmly, if temporarily, around to the radical left. Cameron’s resignation after the June 2016 Brexit referendum ushered in the short-lived premiership of Theresa May. May came close to losing power to Corbyn in the 2017 election, only to be replaced by her own MPs in 2019, bringing in Boris Johnson to “get Brexit done.” A tweet posted by Cameron during the 2015 election campaign is frequently dug up as a particularly grim relic of the period: “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice - stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.” Instead, the UK rejected the slight leftward shift of Miliband’s semi-articulated version of social democracy and chose chaos.
In the wake of all this, Miliband, now freed from the burden of party leadership, has at last resolved the tension between centrist caution and radical ambition firmly in favor of the radical option. In his funny and self-deprecating new book, GO BIG: How To Fix Our World, Miliband makes the case that the only way forward now for center-left parties is to embrace a radical platform of institutional innovation. The book is therefore addressed not only to a British audience, but to parties and activists in the social democratic tradition elsewhere. It has strong resonances for those, such as partisans of the French Parti Socialiste or the German SPD, who face the dangerous prospect of their parties being beached by the tides of history. As its title suggests, GO BIG is a sustained argument for a level of political ambition that would cast the Labour Party’s Blairite era deep into the dustbin of history.
• • •
Miliband’s central argument is that our economic model has become structurally unjustifiable. The centrist attempt—represented in the UK by Blair’s “third way” and its continuation under Brown—to present a softened, humanized version of neoliberal capitalism has been tested to destruction and found to be grossly inadequate. Miliband instead urges an overdue reckoning with the lessons of the Great Financial Crisis, alongside a transformative reworking of the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the face of the worsening climate crisis. Together these challenges necessitate a radically different politics.
The decade since Labour lost power in 2010 has been tumultuous, as the party has struggled to redefine itself politically.
Miliband’s book is an off-shoot of one of his post-leadership projects, a podcast series called Reasons to be Cheerful where he crowd-sources political ideas for social change from different parts of the world. His approach to the podcast informs the methodology of the book: he looks for good ideas already being implemented—by local communities, NGOs, charities, and national governments—and uses them to discuss policies and institutions that could form part of a “new social contract.” As he notes, looking for local roots for systematic institutional change has a distinguished radical pedigree. The UK’s National Health Service, to take one totemic example, has its root in both the mutual aid institutions of the South Wales valleys and in the healthcare provision pioneered by the London County Council during the 1930s.
The book’s method is therefore profoundly optimistic: Miliband surveys the “green shoots” that could form the institutional structure of a radically more egalitarian and democratic society. He divides this exploration into four broad areas: the rights and entitlements of a “new social contract”; methods to reduce the power of markets and reassert non-market values; ways to rebalance power within the economy and society; and how we can create change and where we should look for the agency to widely implement it.
Miliband starts with arguably the central issue for future public policy—the climate crisis—and endorses the kind of Green New Deal proposals that have been developed by the Sunrise Movement in the United States and championed by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Edward Markey in their 2019 congressional proposals. He then moves to housing. Though he doesn’t explicitly mention the historical significance of Red Vienna, he looks at its legacy and the Austrian capital’s huge stock of social housing, which gives citizens secure access to living space and removes the individual insecurity and exploitation of an unregulated housing market. Here Miliband endorses a plan by Shelter, a British housing foundation, that would build 3 million social housing units in the UK over the next twenty years. As with the proposals for a Green New Deal, he endorses more state spending on physical infrastructure—using the state’s full power to transform the country’s physical fabric over the coming decades.
Even if one stopped at the Green New Deal and social housing proposals, these would already comprise a radical prospectus for a highly ambitious version of social democracy. But Miliband wants to go further. He endorses experimenting with Universal Basic Income and other egalitarian policies, such as state-funded parental leave to transform the division of caring responsibilities between men and women and usher in a structurally greater level of gender equality. Here, he looks to the lessons of the Icelandic Women’s Strike of 1975 and to Swedish policies on family leave. This readiness to learn from Nordic examples also extends to corporate governance and industrial strategy, as he argues for forms of codetermination that give more voice to workers, reallocate power within firms, displace the model of shareholder primacy, and make the economy into a realm of greater democratic contestation.
Ed Miliband has resolved the tension between centrist caution and radical ambition firmly in favor of the radical option.
In the second part of the book, Miliband contends that we need better measures of social progress than GDP, exploring the limitations of focusing on aggregate levels of economic growth. He again employs lessons from Sweden and Denmark, making the case for an upturn in collective investment in social care and childcare. From here he argues for working-time reductions, advancing the shift to a shorter working week as a practical way of valuing non-material goods and of promoting greater gender equality. His case for a more interventionist approach to the economy takes inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt’s “trust busting,” with greater restrictions on big tech and more power to individuals in protecting their privacy. He returns to the Nordic example with an argument for investment in cycling infrastructure, incentivizing people to get out of cars and onto two wheels for both health and environmental benefits.
The third part of the book addresses the political dimension of this social transformation and how power can be redistributed. It is difficult to imagine the implementation of many of the new forms of social spending or redistribution that Miliband endorses unless more propitious political conditions are first created and power more broadly dispersed. Accordingly, Miliband looks at the use of citizens’ assemblies, taking examples from Ireland, Mongolia, and the UK Climate Assembly. Moreover, he makes the case that the voting age should be moved down to sixteen, revealing how the political system is often systematically biased against the interests of the young.
In a country like the UK, which has arguably the most grotesquely centralized political system of any large democratic state, it should be a priority to bring both political and economic power closer to local communities. Miliband thus returns to some of the issues around corporate governance discussed earlier in the book, arguing for a diversified plurality of ownership structures—including cooperatives and employee-owned firms—as a way of spreading control within the economy. A society that followed these means of dispersing decision-making power, he contends, would be more responsive to the needs and values of its citizens and better able to respond to social and environmental challenges.
But there is a shift in the final part of the book, which deals with political agency and mechanisms for realizing change. While there are many promising proposals in this section, the level of ambition notably drops. Miliband stops thinking about fundamentally changing the institutional structure of society and focuses instead on local and relatively minor changes within existing social structures. For example, he discusses practices of community organizing, taking as one of his central illustrations a group of friends who persuaded a popular restaurant chain to offer a halal option in their local branch in Cardiff. This is all well and good, of course, but it is also markedly distant from the structural changes presented in earlier chapters.
Miliband's Green New Deal and social housing proposals alone would comprise a radical prospectus for social democracy—but he wants to go further.
Miliband goes on to examine political ambitions that have been fundamental, and are by now familiar, to the left: the necessity of a renewed trade union movement, the carbon divestment movement, and how shareholder and pension-holder activism can feature within the environmental movement. This section develops the earlier discussion of devolution, looking at the radical potential of “community wealth building” as exemplified by the UK’s Preston City Council and its visionary leader, Matthew Brown. (My co-author Joe Guinan and I have also explored this example in our book The Case for Community Wealth Building). Miliband concludes by looking at activist-led movements and their achievements, such as the gains made by LGBTQ activism and the Black Lives Matter movement. A book that began with the appearance of a high-level blueprint for a radical left government ends with an exhortation to individuals to get engaged in campaigns at the local level, joining with others in their workplaces, universities, schools, and communities to create change in their day-to-day lives.
• • •
There is, then, a tension between the earlier and later parts of the book, not least because they seem to have different imagined audiences, but also because of the striking difference in the scale of their proposals. The first part of the book presents a radical social democratic program for a highly activist state that transforms the institutional structure of the economy in the service of social and economic justice. Miliband—who is constrained by his unusual position as an ex-leader of the Labour Party and is also currently in the Shadow Cabinet of the current leader Keir Starmer—is at pains to present the book as an intervention outside party politics. But it is difficult to read the early part of his book as anything other than an outline for the policy platform of a Labour Party that delivers on the mission of a radical social democratic party. This part of the book might be read as the kind of platform he hoped the Labour Party would adopt under his own leadership.
Nevertheless, to take one example, there is a huge gulf between student activists getting their university to divest from fossil fuels and using the state’s power to fully implement an ambitious Green New Deal. Now, I am certainly not disparaging Miliband’s positive account of the possibilities of social activism. But the disparity in scale and variety of political possibility between these visions reveals what might be missing in the book’s account of a way forward for the political left. Miliband’s book is unfailingly optimistic and emphasizes all that well-intentioned, intelligent people might achieve when they work together. But it leaves out any mention of the enemies of this kind of change—those who do not want to see power more broadly dispersed and markets constrained because they benefit from the existing economic settlement.
It will be difficult to implement the forms of social spending and redistribution that Miliband endorses without first creating more equal political conditions.
Miliband knows better than most that those in power will do anything to hold onto that power: as Labour leader he was frequently traduced in the billionaire-owned British press, precisely because he advocated for a mild form of social democracy that went directly against the interests of the plutocratic economic elite. His book is an exercise in finding hope, but its laudable optimism of the will could have been balanced with a bit more pessimism of the intellect. At least a few chapters on the political enemies of his democratic, egalitarian project would have made for a stronger book. Miliband’s readers will be puzzled by some of what is deliberately left out of his book—the necessity of battling against political enemies and resolutely deploying the state’s fiscal and regulatory capacities against vested interests—but these difficult elements must unavoidably be part of a viable left project. The pursuit of social justice in a deeply unjust world can’t only be a matter of progress among optimistic and well-intentioned people; it also necessitates defeating opposing interests.
As a young man, Miliband spent a lot of time in the United States, where his father Ralph had held visiting professorships. Before starting college, Ed got an internship at The Nation, where he worked alongside the vituperative leftist ex-pat journalist Alexander Cockburn. Assessing the character of the young intern, Cockburn famously announced one afternoon that “the problem with you, Eddie, is that your hate is not pure.” Taken aback, the young Ed replied that he didn’t really hate anyone, thereby apparently failing what Cockburn took to be a kind of test of political realism for those committed to the cause of the left. I would not hazard to say whether Miliband’s hate for proponents of injustice is now or was then sufficiently “pure” in Cockburn’s sense, but hostility of any sort is strikingly absent in the unmodulated optimism of Miliband’s book. In one way this is perhaps admirable, but in another it is easy to imagine what Cockburn would have made of the sunny optimism of GO BIG.
Yet it would be absurd to advance a charge of naïveté at Miliband, who not only had the determination to become the leader of a national political party, but also did so at the cost of his brother’s political career. Ed’s own history, as someone determined to bury the legacy of “New Labour” centrism—despite having been a protégé of Brown and having begun his early political career at the centre of the “New Labour” period—further suggests a principled allegiance to the socialist project that goes well beyond tactical manoeuvring.
This brings us back to the dilemmas of social democracy that have occupied Labour since it lost power, and to a further question about the substance and orientation of Miliband’s book. On the question of the future of social democratic politics, GO BIG could hardly be more explicit: it chooses a radical politics of socioeconomic transformation, arguing for institutional innovation to redistribute money and power to working people and create a more equal, democratic, and sustainable society. The book is a comprehensive repudiation of caution, quietism, and centrist accommodation to the status quo. Yet it is nearly silent on the period between 2015 and 2019, immediately following Miliband’s own leadership, when Labour became a radical left political party under Jeremy Corbyn.
The pursuit of social justice in an unjust world can’t only occur among well-intentioned people; it necessitates defeating opposing interests.
Miliband’s book mentions Corbyn only twice, once to note the surge in Labour Party membership after Corbyn became leader, and the second time (in a footnote) to mention Corbyn’s formation of a Community Organizing Unit within the Labour Party. Moreover, John McDonnell, who as Shadow Chancellor during that period pushed forward policies on house building, green infrastructure, union rights, reduced working time, and the expansion of the cooperative sector, gets no mention at all. While parts of the book read like a defense of the radical left political project of Corbyn and McDonnell (many of the book’s policy proposals are exactly aligned with the Labour Party’s election manifestos in 2017 and 2019), this political context is left deliberately unacknowledged. This is likely the result of a tension between the internal logic of the book’s arguments and the political position of its author, who serves as a politician under Corbyn’s successor, Starmer (who ran for the leadership promising continuity with Corbyn-era policies but has since moved the party sharply towards the political center).
But this very specific tension should not bother the book’s readers, for whom the political implications for the future of the Labour Party of Miliband’s ideas and analysis should be much clearer than the book can allow itself to be. In contrast to the book’s brief mentions of Labour under Corbyn, I merely note here that the Labour Party has lost tens of thousands of members since Starmer became leader. And one of Starmer’s most consequential acts as party leader—going entirely against the grain of Miliband’s own account of how change can be made into a reality—has been to close the party’s Community Organizing Unit.
Though Miliband’s book is set within a very British context, its central lines of argument apply to European social democracy more broadly and to progressive politics around the world. Despite its lacunae and the sense of some of things left tactically unsaid, GO BIG holds much political wisdom and presents it with a rare mix of erudition and hard-won practical experience. Miliband’s book makes a compelling argument that the way forward for social democracy has to be a path of high ambition, driven by appreciation of the scale of change needed. The project of the left can only work if it operates at a sufficient level of ambition, with a clear-eyed appreciation that, in a world recovering from a pandemic, facing a climate crisis, and beset by inequalities of race, gender, and class, small-bore solutions are a waste of time. Our only viable option is to have the courage to be ambitious.
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August 18, 2021
17 Min read time