First published in Progress magazine
There will be no pie-in-the-sky promises under the next Labour government, Ed Miliband tells Richard Angell and Adam Harrison
Entering the leader of the opposition’s now-bare office, his team are quick to point out how the operation has decamped to Brewers Green, the campaign nerve centre. In what is one of Ed Miliband’s last meetings in the Norman Shaw South office we ask him to cast his mind forward. What will Britain after five years of a Labour government look like? ‘The country will be run according to a different idea,’ he explains. ‘I think the Tories really do believe that as long as you take care of those at the top, the wealth will just trickle down to everybody else. That has not worked.’ So Labour, in contrast, believes ‘when working people succeed, that Britain succeeds’. ‘At the end of five years of this government, people think the country is more divided, more unequal, more unjust. And I hope that by the end of five years of my government, people will think, “Actually the country is more fair, more just, more equal and better serves my interests”.’
‘We’re obviously going to be facing more difficult financial circumstances’, Miliband is keen to stress, and, he continues, ‘we’re going to cut the deficit every year’. ‘The Tories can make the cuts, but I don’t believe they can cut the deficit.’ This seems to have been borne out this parliament – the Tories are set to borrow £75bn more over the next five years than they predicted and are no way towards eliminating the structural deficit by the end of this parliament as they promised in 2010. But why does he think this going forward? ‘Because if you think about cutting education spending, cutting some of the vital productive investments that our country needs – and it’s inevitable with their plan that they would do that – I think that undermines our ability to create the high-skill, high-wage economy which is absolutely essential to deficit reduction.’ So Miliband’s government will ‘protect infrastructure spending, which I do not believe the Tories will do, they’re going to go back to the 1930s levels of spending’.
He rejects the short-termism of the current government and sets his sights longer-term, because some issues are about ‘more than the five-year political cycle’. As the number of self-employed people looks set to overtake the number of those working in the public sector in the next five years, he says that, ‘If you say that wealth doesn’t just trickle down from those at the top or a few corporations, we have got to be on the side of small businesses and the self-employed,’ adding that, ‘the most important thing is that people who are self-employed don’t feel, when it comes to pensions, when it comes to mortgages, when it comes to some of the basic things that everyone else takes for granted, they’re left on the margins.’ On infrastructure, Miliband likens plans outlined in John Armitt’s review ‘with that of the climate change committee which has set out our carbon targets, another long-term thing, and, in a way, it may have been controversial when it came in, but it’s quite hard to ignore an independent commission suggesting these things.’ ‘I think what business wants is for us to be thinking not five years, but 10, 15, 20 years ahead. I think that’s what it will allow us to do. We want this to be as cross-party as possible, but it’s something that we’re going to implement if we win the election.’
He is equally dismissive of David Cameron’s isolation within Europe. ‘I think it’s important that within five years we have a Britain that is engaged, outward-looking, part of the European Union, not on the way to exit.’ Under Labour it will be ‘a reformed European Union’ with ‘proposals on immigration, on the budget’, and it forms ‘part of this progressive vision at home’. ‘I think it’s a real sign of the party’s maturity actually that 30 years ago we were the party of the antis, and now it’s the Tories who are drifting towards exit … There are lots of dangers of a Tory government, but one of them is: Where are they taking us on Europe?’
With a Labour victory in May the Tories will be in turmoil, arguing between the mayor of London and former home secretary. ‘Goodness knows what will happen to the Tories with an election defeat,’ reflects Miliband. He thinks there is a ‘moment coming in the Tory party, because there are probably more [Tory members of parliament and supporters] that are pro-European, who have kept quiet, and there will be a big question about which direction they go in.’
So would prime minister Miliband invite pro-European Tory MPs to cross the floor and join a One Nation Labour government? He says, with a mischievous and wry smile, ‘I want as many people as possible backing us’. ‘There are many pro-Europeans who will be very alarmed at the direction of travel within the Tory party. There are many people who believe in One Nation who [will] think, “Where is the Conservative party going?” So I’ll take as many supporters as possible.’
With talk of organisers being pulled from key seats and those involved in the campaign’s strategy talking about a target list of fewer than the 67 needed to propel Miliband into No 10, the Labour leader insists he is ‘aiming for an outright majority’. ‘I think it’s absolutely doable. It’s really important to understand the context of this. Five years ago, people said that we couldn’t win and you know, people aren’t saying that any more; this is absolutely our election to win.’ Quoting an article published on the Progress website which reviewed the reception on the doorstep following the recent three-seat challenge 24-seat tour, he says, ‘They may be outspending us but we’re definitely out-organising them’. ‘They’re spending lots of money on direct mail – and direct mail’s important, we’ll be sending direct mail – but the face-to-face contact absolutely counts for double, treble’.
Following the victories of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 the Democratic party tried to take the organising spirit that brought him to office into the campaign for Obamacare and latterly created Organising for America as a legacy to the campaign. Does Miliband believe there are any lessons that could give his government momentum in office? ‘I don’t think that community organising stops when we win the election; I think it carries on. Post-election, there is a real opportunity for us to build the capacity of local parties.’ ‘We now have a big advantage in terms of not being a virtual party like the Tories are, but a real party on the ground and we’ve got to nurture that and nurture it in government. And look, it’s harder in government – we found that out post-97, but I think it is totally doable.’
The ‘vision in the [Collins review] reforms’ is ‘to build a genuine mass movement party, engaging individual trade union members, engaging individuals from all aspects of society. I’ve talked before about the vision of not just 200,000 people, but many, many more people being involved in the party.’ He will, however, not be drawn on the fact that the National Executive Committee – tasked with implementing the detail of the reform – has given members of the public just 12 days following the election to pay their £3 for the London mayoral contest scheduled for this summer. ‘I’m going to leave that to the NEC’, he says about the first political challenge of his would-be administration. ‘This is a level of detail [about which] there are other people who can make this judgement.’ In contrast, union and socialist society members have until 19 June. In acknowledgement he says, ‘I think this election campaign will mobilise people [to become registered supporters], but there’s a lot more [we] can do.’
The defining issue of the election will be practical help for families. ‘I am proud of our policy for 25 hours of free childcare, which will make a real difference to working parents’. But it is the NHS on which there is a big vision and big fight. ‘If you’re thinking about the five years of a government, we’ve set out a clear direction of travel when it comes to integration of health and social care. Not a top-down reorganisation, but a clear direction of travel.’
With everything to play for and a tough set of Tory opponents, Miliband bounces with optimism about his prospects. Part of that is a credible play for the Labour party and importantly about rebuilding faith in politics. ‘I am not making pie-in-the-sky promises, I’m not promising people the earth – I am making real, concrete promises that can make a difference to people.’