med Miliband was a cabinet minister before he learned to ride a bicycle properly. He’d mastered standing upright on two wheels as a child, but not much else. Around the same age he also picked up the rudiments of socialism, from the group of leftist intellectuals and politicians who visited his father Ralph, an eminent Marxist academic. It was not until the summer of 2015, when the British electorate firmly rejected Ed Miliband’s application for Prime Minister, that he discovered the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle.
That story, the late blooming on a bicycle, is one of the many personal vignettes that were sown in Go big, Miliband’s book on political ideas that can change the world and how to put them into practice. (Getting people out of their cars and into bike lanes is a chapter.) Go big it is not a memory, but it does hint at a personal journey. Does the prescription in the book’s title imply that, as a Labor leader, it was too small?
“I was not bold enough.” Miliband answers my question without hesitation. “I was bold in my analysis, but I felt at that moment that I was not bold in my solutions. And since then, I felt that the prescriptions did not meet the analysis. “He recalls giving” a silly answer “when an interviewer asked him if his election manifesto matched the ambition of Margaret Thatcher or Clement Attlee.” He used to console me with it. thought: well, you are in opposition, there is a lot you can do. “
Go big It was born out of the post-defeat decision not to settle for that kind of comfort. Miliband describes it as a call to “rediscover our agency” when faced with enormous and seemingly insoluble problems: inequality, job insecurity, a climate emergency, the breaking of the social contract. “People can often feel helpless. For totally understandable reasons, if you are on the progressive side of politics: you see a conservative government in power; you think – I hope – that I want a Labor government, but what am I going to do in the meantime? There are other entry points to power. “
Miliband started the book as a secondary deputy, not anticipating a front-row return to duty at the invitation of Keir Starmer last year. He likes quote Barack Obama: “The worrying thing is not the magnitude of our problems, but the smallness of our politics.” The book certainly looks across a broad horizon, covering social, economic, and political reform. Each topic is extrapolated from a real-world case study, demonstrating that engaged individuals and groups can make lasting positive change. The common ingredients are imagination, which is built from a small base, and the absence of caution when it comes to challenging a prevailing consensus. The narrative spans the world: a women’s strike for equality in Iceland; US Campaigns Against Poverty Wages; Viennese social housing; emergency flood response in Doncaster. The tone is energetic, enthusiastic but also quite specific in the details of the policies. The book does not shy away from what the author tells me is his “nerdy-tastic” tendency.
This self-awareness, acceptance of the geek personality, is one of the ways that defeat in 2015 has given Miliband a clearer voice. Even in the sterile environment of a Zoom call, he is more relaxed, more comfortable in his skin than as a leader, when political caution sometimes seemed to fill his mouth with cotton wool. (“That’s a good description of what it was,” he responds when I offer him the metaphor). It’s a recognized Westminster trap: Sometimes the natural flair required for success is only triggered by failure.
In Miliband’s case, the paradox is doubly poignant because he was ridiculed for presenting arguments that have since been absorbed by the political consensus. He warned that Britain’s poorly regulated post-Thatcherian economic model had been captured by a predatory form of capitalism. That the system was rigged in a way that obstructed social mobility, eliminated security, and fostered frustration.
Some of that analysis, and the accompanying recognition that the state has to be much more robust to fix the problem, reported Theresa May’s 2017 manifesto. (She attacked Labor’s idea of having workers represented on boards company leadership, but lacked the courage and political bandwidth in his party to move forward). As part of its “leveling off” agenda, the current government is considering punitive taxes to avoid “land banking” – the practice of developers sitting on vacant lots and watching its value skyrocket without building new homes. proposed a use it or lose it offense against the same thing eight years ago, Boris Johnson denounced it. in the Daily Telegraph What “Mugabe-style expropriations”.
That is not a new phenomenon. Johnson is famous for not being interested in consistency. Ideological plasticity is the reason conservatives have a storied record as one of the most formidable election winning machines in the world. There should be no consolation for the Labor Party in having been right in theory without then having gained the power to put the ideas into practice. My concern with Go big it is that the sections on political efficacy, which focus on community organizing and the application of political pressure from the outside, run the risk of indulging the Labor tendency to lean towards the role of perpetual opposition. There is a fine line between celebrating the energy of a social movement and retreating from the difficult task of winning over skeptical voters. The sound of true believers chanting Jeremy Corbyn’s name may have raised the roof in the auditoriums, but it did not bring Labor to government.
Miliband responds that activism, properly deployed in the community, can persuade people that the Labor Party is on their side; proving the point with deeds, not just words. The party cannot appear at the door as ambassadors for some remote “planetary politics”, trying to garner support. “If we are community activists, we re-engage people. Politics has to do with what you are doing with the people in their communities, not just with what the leader says on TV ”. The book, he says, is not intended to be a campaign plan, but rather a repository of evidence that there are effective routes to change. “I am not going to pretend that this is Labor’s electoral strategy, but I am coming up with ideas to change the country; trying to lift his eyes from the smallness of politics ”.
The missing ingredient, I suggest, is a parable; a simple story linking analysis of what has gone wrong in Britain to political prescriptions with the kind of crisp, campaign resonance that makes voters nod their heads when they hear it. Miliband’s response: “He would have been prime minister if he had had that in 2015.” When asked if he offers Starmer any advice, or comfort, drawn from his first-hand knowledge of how difficult work can be, unsurprisingly, there are no comments. One service Miliband can provide to the current leader is to save him useless headlines generated by nosy predecessors.
He is confident that there will be a chance for Labor when the Conservatives fail to deliver on their promises. “What you will see is that a gap opens up between your rhetoric and reality. They say they don’t want insecure jobs and all that, but they don’t really do anything about it. They say they want a green revolution, but they don’t believe in the role of the state to make that revolution a reality ”.
It may be true that Johnson’s shapeshifting act lacks intellectual coherence and depth, but if “leveling up” doesn’t work, conservatives will surely try other devices to shore up recent electoral gains. Capturing the so-called “red wall” seats in the North and Midlands was achieved in large part because Brexit probed a deeper cultural alienation from Labor on issues of identity and national pride. Conservatives will make up for noncompliance on the economic front by stoking resentments from the culture war.
Miliband feels less comfortable in this area. When I mention Labor’s disappointing performance in the recent local elections, he deviates with the observation that in his Doncaster constituency the party’s vote was delayed. When I suggest that the Conservatives will continue to push arguments about flags and patriotism as long as it feels like a free blow in a defenseless opposition coup, it shifts the conversation to an area where the left finds an easier agreement: “There is a consensus among Labor on the need for a big economic change. That’s the right thing to do for the country and where the mainstream and the vast majority of the party are. “
Perhaps it is a legacy of exposure to Marx at a formative stage that Miliband’s political analysis leaves aside a rationalizing question of how economic power is distributed. His diagnosis may well be accurate, but accuracy is not always competitive in campaigns against nationalists and populists. The task is to defeat the ruthless strategies built around the famous view expressed by the late Andrew Breitbart, a propagandist for America’s alt-right, that “politics is downstream of culture.”
I put it on Miliband and he responds with a global and historical perspective. You can recite a list of places where positive and dramatic change is happening right now, from Joe Biden’s America to Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand. He also makes a compelling case for optimism based on a moment not long ago when the path to progress seemed blocked. However, the obstacles were removed and unimaginable heights were reached.
“I grew up in an era where the Berlin Wall was up and apartheid was strong.” Miliband’s voice is now exuberant, a gear shift from rumination to exhortation; no cotton in the mouth. Think of the transformation in our adult life! Think about the transformation of LGBT rights; How inconceivable it seemed when Section 28 was passed that, 30 years from now, marriage equality would have been on the agenda. “This belief that amazing and uplifting changes happen, and that they can be achieved, is why he did not leave Westminster in 2015. “Why didn’t I go away and become an academic? I mean, my dad was an academic. There are a lot of great academics who do really important things. I’m a politician who has always been interested in ideas, but I want to make the change occurs in the country ”.
Here speaks a man who fell or was run over in his political career, dusted himself off and got on his bicycle again. “It’s very important to remember to what extent things can change in ways you don’t anticipate, in ways that people can’t see.” That, in essence, is the message of Go big. It is a book conceived in an idealism that has collided with reality but that has resisted the retreat to cynicism. “You have to hold on to hope,” he says as time is running out. “I mean, God knows, I should know that.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism