Has Ed Miliband’s moment arrived?

by Jonathan Todd

“In 2008-09,” Gordon Brown recently told New Statesman, “we tried to persuade people that it made sense to run a deficit and it was not a problem in the long term if debt rose in the short term. We failed to persuade people. If anything contributed to the return of the Conservatives to power, it was their ability to scare people about the deficit and debt.”

After succeeding Brown as Labour leader, Ed Miliband attempted to become prime minister by positioning Labour to the left of New Labour. This strategy was thought to be justified as the financial crisis of 2008-09 had enlarged public appetite for stronger regulation and an expanded economic role for the state.

In 2015, Labour and the rest of the country moved in opposite directions. Labour’s general election defeat brought into doubt the extent of the appeal of Miliband’s more muscular state. Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent indicated that Labour considered Miliband’s offer too tepid.

“Now,” Brown continued in his New Statesman interview, “the fiscal orthodoxy has changed. What we were criticised for in 2009-10 is understood to be the best way of dealing with a crisis. We’ve got to understand that the only way that you can replace spending power and economic activity when the private sector fails to be able to invest, and consumers are not spending and people are not able to work, is that the government steps in.”

It must be hoped that Brown is right about the fiscal orthodoxy. Yet Jo Harding reminded Uncut, “local authorities are facing a £10 billion black hole due to coronavirus.”

This is despite Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick telling 300 English council leaders and sector bodies in a conference call on 16 March that the government would do “whatever is necessary” to help them tackle coronavirus.

The gulf between Jenrick’s unfulfilled promise and Harding’s bleak reality suggest Brown might be wrong – at least insofar as fiscal orthodoxy is interpreted by the government. This is worrying because to add austerity to coronavirus disruption would be to needlessly deepen our economic and social malaise.

While the actions of Jenrick indicate otherwise, Boris Johnson’s insistence that his government will not revert to austerity reveals a recognition that the public mood has changed since the Conservatives enjoyed victories in 2010 and 2015 with an emphasis upon deficit reduction.

The masses are austerity fatigued and some elites are newly sympathetic. For example, in mid-May an FT editorial was headlined, “now is not the time to worry about the UK debt burden”.

Our Thursday night clapping may have seeded a desire for the kind of bigger state that Miliband anticipated after the financial crisis. Persistently low interest rates may also provide the means of financing this.

Right on cue, Miliband is back on the frontbench. “When crisis occurs,” Miliband recently recalled Milton Freidman saying on the Talking Politics podcast, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Miliband reassured Talking Politics that there are more ideas around on “building back better” than there were in 2008-09.

“Is there some idea,” Miliband was asked, “where you really think, ‘oh, the time is now’?” “The Green New Deal.”

If low interest rates sustain an expanded role for the state, green infrastructure is one the best targets for this spending – after £10 billion has been found to plug the gap in local government finances.

The perils of “picking winners” is a traditional objection to government playing a bigger economic role. As there are only so many ways for us to get to a zero-carbon economy, this risk is minimised in relation to green infrastructure.

We are not picking a business or sector but a societal mission. Targeted upon zero emissions by 2050, with half of this reduction being achieved by 2030.

There is, therefore, an imperative to bring forward as much investment in green infrastructure as possible over coming years. When combined with a heightened public intolerance for austerity and a new fiscal orthodoxy, this environmental urgency adds to the sense that Miliband’s moment approaches.

The old may be dying but for the new to be truly born, Miliband does not just need to be back on the frontbench; he must return to government.

Talking Politics raised Rutger Bregman’s new book with Miliband (“a declaration of faith in the innate goodness and natural decency of human beings,” Stephen Fry). “Do you buy this argument?” “Yes!”

Human goodness – pace Bregman and Miliband – is not innate but a product (or not) of our environments. The point of Labour should not be to assume an innate goodness but to build a society where the goodness of as many people as possible finds expression.

This social nurturing would benefit from more physical nature – with Miliband referencing the importance of reforestation and tackling air pollution on Talking Politics. But Miliband should not get lost up Bregman’s intellectual cul-de-sac of innate goodness.

Good people are not good all the time, bad people are not bad all the time – context is everything.

Miliband should quest for a return to government, where he will be able to craft more contexts that bring out goodness. Assuming nothing along the way, least of all an innate goodness.

Then his moment will have arrived. Not a second too soon.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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