A cruel new joke is doing the rounds about Ed Miliband: that the Labour leader is like a plastic bag stuck in a tree. No one is sure how he got up there, but no one can be bothered to take him down. It’s one of many unfair gags, made on the premise that he is a laughing stock and, ergo, doomed in next year’s general election. Many a Tory comforts himself with the idea that Miliband is just too implausible, too weak, too trivial a figure to make it to 10 Downing Street.
Yet anyone wishing to dismiss him has to face some uncomfortable questions. Why, if he is such a joke, has Labour led in the opinion polls for three years solidly? And why has he been the bookmakers’ favourite to win the next general election for even longer? Foreign diplomats are wiring messages back home with the same message: the next British election may be a close-run thing, but Miliband does look as if he has the advantage. Not because he is a great politician, but simply due to the exigencies of the Westminster electoral system. The Liberal Democrat party has split, half of its voters have defected to Labour, so all he needs to do is limp to the finish line.
And once he gets there, we should not think that Miliband’s government would be a wishy-washy, Blair-lite government. His agenda is clear, radical, populist and (most worryingly of all) popular. His speeches are intellectually coherent, and clearly address the new problems of inequality. A wave of left-wing populism swept François Hollande to power in France and Bill de Blasio to power in New York, and Miliband believes that the same can be done here. And that one does not ride this wave by faffing about in the middle ground.
His analysis is potent because he correctly identifies the problem. There is major problem with the recovery, he says, in that the spoils are going to the richest, and it’s time to act. He’s quite right that when the crash came, the richest did not suffer with the rest. The price of mansions did not crash, nor did demand for luxury goods sag. As Ross Clark argues elsewhere in this issue, the prices of fine wine, paintings and Ferraris have soared — so the wealthiest have grown far more wealthy. Meanwhile, the average worker will have to wait until 2020 before the average salary returns to where it was in 2007.
There is a conservative explanation — that the culprit is not the free market, but massive government interference in the market pinning interest rates to the floor and sending asset prices to the stratosphere. But George Osborne does not talk about this. He prefers to avoid the wider issue of inequality. This leaves one of the most interesting debates of our times entirely open to Miliband.
His phrases, like ‘predistribution’, sound as if they are new ideas. But they conceal an audacious attempt to grave-rob Old Labour and exhume policies championed by Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock in 1983 and 1987. The philosophical underpinning is rehabilitated: that the free enterprise system does not work, and should be put under greater government control. That companies, bankers and markets have buggered up Britain — and it’s time for people, through Big Government, to fight back.
The totemic Miliband policy is the revival of Kinnock’s 1987 manifesto pledge to ‘reverse the extra tax cuts which the richest 5 per cent have received’. This time, it’s the 50p rate of tax that will be brought back — in spite of a complete lack of evidence that this would raise money. It was greed for tax revenue that led New Labour to leave the top rate at 40p, knowing this was the best way of extracting most cash. But Miliband isn’t taxing for revenue. He’s taxing for the applause of the electorate and he calculates that the more he beats up on bankers and the rich, the louder the masses will cheer.
And not just the bankers, but the banks too. In 1987, Kinnock only dared propose a ‘British Industrial Investment Bank’ to do the government’s bidding. Miliband not only promises a ‘British Investment Bank’, but would also have the government create two new chains of high street banks. As Simon Walker, head of the Institute of Directors, put it: ‘The last time the government told a bank what to do, Lloyds was ordered to sell branches to the Co-op’s Reverend Flowers. And we all know how that ended.’
But this is what marks Miliband out: he doesn’t care how the Co-op’s story ended. Nor do the coterie of academics, policy wonks and former ecclesiastical acolytes who surround him. They are set on breaking the mould of British politics, on the idea that Labour ‘need not accept an international status quo so manifestly riddled with injustice’ (again to quote the 1983 manifesto). When Miliband says his green policies will create a million jobs, he doesn’t consider studies which suggest that, in Spain, nine jobs were lost for every four ‘green jobs’ created. He doesn’t want to ask whether it’s feasible to set up two new banks: he just wants it done. And ‘on day one of a Labour government’.
Labour’s 1983 pledge to ‘ensure that everyone can afford adequate heat and light at home’ is to be magically made good by ordering energy companies to freeze bills. The 1983 demand for ‘a supply of appropriately qualified teachers’ has been revived in Miliband’s plan to root out teachers who do not have the union-approved ‘Qualified Teacher Status’. And Kinnock’s 1987 idea of a choice between ‘a United Kingdom or a divided kingdom’ has now been snappily compressed into ‘One Nation Labour’.
The 1983 Foot manifesto was dubbed the ‘longest suicide note in history’, but it was positively vague and lacking in detail compared to what Miliband offers now. He talks about ‘predator’ companies, and he gives us examples. Moneylenders, who offer short-term loans. People who make fixed-odds betting machines. Landowners, who stand accused of hoarding and thwarting housebuilding. Every month, another industry seems to join the list of ‘predators’. In fact, when Miliband talks about the future, he says very little about what he’d do with government. He talks about what he’d do to British business.
All this amounts to a blitz of regulation, edicts and interference — and this is where the ‘pre-distribution’ of wealth comes in. The soundbite has recently been spun into a doctrine by Tristram Hunt, his education spokesman (and, handily, a biographer of Engels). The limitation with New Labour, Hunt says, was that it restricted the government’s role to mere taxation. And yes, it did that a lot — Britain now redistributes almost as much through the tax system as Scandinavia. But Miliband’s Labour will go to the next level and fine-tune society so as to change ‘the way the market distributes its rewards in the first place’.
To his credit, Hunt does not pretend that interference at this level is being attempted in any free country. As he puts it, Labour now poses a ‘significant challenge to the traditional political methodology of social democracy’. This is a polite way of saying that Britain would be turned into a policy laboratory for an experiment in the massive expansion of government powers. The fate of François Hollande’s France gives a glimpse of what we could expect when a former backroom boy who wants to play the radical actually gets elected.
But few can deny that, in an age when voters complain that all the parties sound the same, Miliband is offering something genuinely different. He has faith in the power of ideas, at a time when Tories seem to have lost interest in ideas. It may have been 31 years since Michael Foot went to the country promising to challenge the ‘international status quo so manifestly riddled with injustice’ — but Miliband is bold enough to think that, in a country midway through the worst recovery in history, there may be a market for all this now. And most terrifyingly of all, he might be right.
Additional reporting by Tiffany Trenner-Lyle.