In the basement of the Fabian Society offices sit a series of archive shelves that slide around like something out of an Indiana Jones library set. When in the basement waiting for a printing job to finish, I occasionally flick through old pamphlets or copies of the Fabian Review.
This morning I picked out an Autumn 2005 edition of the Review on the future of the Labour Party (our past is filled with constant questions of our future). In this edition I found an article by one Ed Miliband on party membership. What surprised me most about this article was how much of it could have been written today. In fact, its themes were surprisingly reminiscent of his recent speech to the Progress Annual Conference.
Labour needs supporters’ networks for those not wanting to be full members; the party needs to do more to make local communities better places; Labour must campaign on single issues to show the party is not just a vote-winning machine.
But beyond these prescriptions, Ed also hints at something else of greater importance: the need for a sense of national mission that explains what membership of the Labour Party is actually offering. Ed says: “our job must be to provide an overall progressive analysis of the country and the world we live and how we want to change it.”
With this in mind, I reflected on something else I’d read by Ed Miliband: his article on Responsible Capitalism in the latest edition of IPPR. In this article, Ed sets out five key areas in which we can and should build a more responsible capitalism:
- Finance: we need more and smaller banks that lend to smaller businesses
- Equity markets: we need to instil a culture of long-termism in our equity-markets
- Competition: we need to break up monopolies and introduce competition where they exist (e.g. energy markets)
- Industrial policy: we need to support industries in which the UK has a comparative advantage
- Skills: we need a population with the skills able to take advantage of the new jobs created by a successful iteration of step four
This is all good stuff and concrete steps to rebuild a more responsible economy are most welcome. But something huge is missing: people. Nowhere in these five steps do we get a sense or an illustration of how responsible capitalism will change the day-to-day experiences of low-pay and job insecurity (where those jobs exist in the first place) that many people are currently living with in the UK.
Ed Miliband’s analysis of the irresponsibility of capitalism is very probably spot on, but the narrative is not one that clearly relates to the lives that people are living. Unless Ed’s analysis can be explained in a language that the broad mass of people understand, they will never be sold on his vision for the UK.
Now let me introduce a couple of caveats. Firstly, the broad mass of people don’t read IPPR articles (sorry guys…). Secondly, I joined the Labour Party for the very purpose of voting to make Ed Miliband leader of the party with a hope that he becomes Prime Minister. I did this because I was working in the environmental movement, and was struck by his strength of analysis and vision on the issue of climate change. I believed that he was the only leadership candidate with the potential to be a truly transformative leader of the Labour party.
I believe that Ed Miliband can be as transformative a Prime Minister as Margaret Thatcher was. But I think that the clarity of vision that the Ed Miliband project is based on needs to be turned up quite a few notches. The country realises that Cameron and the Tories ‘don’t get it’. But they remain deeply unconvinced by Labour. The polls and the local elections were victories by default. And if we are to recruit substantial new members and reach out to get more people voting again we need more than a ‘by default’ majority in 2015. We need a sense of national mission and purpose.
To quote another old Fabian Society publication ‘Socialism’ in 1994, Tony Blair wrote this:
“The Thatcherite project is over. The present government has no project, except political survival. As a result the country drifts without serious purpose or coherence of direction. The prospects for a regenerated left of centre have never been better, nor its duty to grasp them greater.”
It’s incredibly depressing that the same sentiment is entirely true today. The challenge for Labour is to forge a new-consensus, to consign the ghost of neoliberalism to the history books. Ed Miliband is in the right place, and I believe he has the right ideas. The task is now to project them to a public hungry for an analysis and vision that rings true.
In the original 2005 essay for the Fabian review, Ed Miliband warns that in opposition, it is easy to confuse the sentiment of ‘get the Tories out’ with a convincing narrative of national mission. He knows the pitfalls, now he must seize the opportunity.