Written by: David Clark on 18 April, 2013
Filed under Democracy

Shifting Grounds accepted an invitation to join Ed Miliband on the campaign trail in Bristol on Saturday. The West Country is something of a spiritual home for us, given the number of our contributors who live in places like Bristol, Bath and Frome, so in effect we were welcoming the Labour leader to our local patch. The weather, consisting of a persistent drizzle, was not so welcoming.

We caught up with Miliband as he arrived at St Nicholas Market, a covered labyrinth of stalls owned by independent traders in the city centre a short stroll from the glass and steel of the new Cabot Circus shopping centre. Altogether a suitably Blue Labour sort of place to be.

A throng was already around him as he started his walkabout, answering questions and talking at length to stallholders and shoppers. The owner of the T-shirt stall urged him to “give us hope”. Although the effect of the crowd around him was to make the immediate area impassable, no one seemed to mind too much. The mood was one of warm curiosity rather than excitement, but there was no hostility either. “Oooooh, Ed Miliband”, a woman behind me said to her friend as she reached for her camera-phone to take a snap.

It was said at the time of his election as Labour leader that Miliband would have a few short weeks to define himself or risk being defined by his opponents. Like so much else that passes for political wisdom these days, that turned out to be complete nonsense. The Red Ed tag didn’t stick, but nor did anything else. A country largely switched off politics for the last three years is therefore still getting to know him. Likewise, Miliband is still working out how to introduce himself properly.

His performances in Parliament have improved enormously, as his widely praised tribute to Lady Thatcher showed. It is noticeable that no one calls him “Labour’s Iain Duncan Smith” anymore. But he knows the Commons chamber isn’t the place where he can project himself most effectively. It’s in direct interaction with the voter that his personality is able to come through. So he has been experimenting with different formats, the latest of which is an open air Q&A conducted from a makeshift soapbox.

Outside the market, Miliband braved the drizzle to field questions from all comers for about forty-five minutes. The topics ranged from housing to the economy and Trident. The questioners were polite and Miliband responded with an engaging directness, taking care to remember the name of each of them. The only discordant voice was a shout of “vote Conservative” offered in mischief. Either that or David Cameron is doing better in the dishevelled inebriate demographic than I’d assumed.

The last questioner introduced a sharply political point by putting it to Miliband that the cuts were unnecessary because the deficit could be paid off in full by cracking down on tax avoidance. He wisely declined to agree and said that he couldn’t promise to reverse every Tory cut. Picking up on his conversation at the T-shirt stall, he said he wanted to give hope, but wouldn’t offer “false hope”.

The event and the format seemed to work well. The crowd stayed in place and grew, despite the weather. The couple beside me were surprised and impressed to see a national politician taking questions from the public without the usual stage management. But how do you capture the directness of that format in a way that breaks through given the sheer difficulty of reaching enough voters to make a difference? It’s a problem Labour’s strategists are still grappling with, which I guess means more experimentation.

On the train to Chippenham, I had a bit of time to ask Miliband some questions. I started with the death of Margaret Thatcher and asked why he thought it was important to mark her passing with a collective show of respect by recalling Parliament:

I felt throughout this process, you can disagree profoundly with what Margaret Thatcher did, as I do, but it’s really important to show respect. If you want to be Prime Minister of the whole country, there are lots of people who did admire her and when someone dies, it is one thing to have vitriolic disagreements when somebody’s alive, but once someone’s dead, you can disagree, as I did in the House of Commons, but you should also have respect for those people who took a different view. That’s just the kind of person I am. I think you’ve just got to behave with decency. It would have been tawdry to say no to a recall of Parliament.

Moving on to Thatcher’s political legacy, I put it to him that he was Labour’s third attempt at a response. Old Labour had offered unsuccessful resistance. New Labour decided to reach an accommodation with Thatcherism. How does One Nation Labour differ?:

I’m just wondering about that word accommodation. What New Labour did was massively challenge her social settlement in relation to the public realm, poverty and redistribution. It didn’t challenge it in the same way on economics. So it was an accommodation on the economic parts of the approach, but it was also a challenge on the social parts of the approach.

In relation to me, I think we’ve learned a lot since the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why it’s right to challenge it. What are the points of challenge? They are to deregulation being the answer. They are to a certain type of individualism. Yes, aspiration is important, but a take what you can, in it for yourself individualism is not what I’m for and I don’t think it’s actually how countries succeed. And some of the things we’ve seen at the top of society in the banks, for example, is part of the thing that needs to be challenged. Funnily enough, even some of the bankers are now saying that.

Thirdly, it’s about the idea that government should just get out of the way and that you can have a proper industrial policy or you can have the kind of balanced economy you need if government just withdraws. Actually, all of those things – deregulation, that kind of individualism, laissez-faire government out of the way – all of those things have been challenged. Where are we politically? We are at the moment when the old settlement has broken down and we’ve got to find a new settlement. That’s the challenge.

The short term changes we need, the departure from austerity, are important, but as important are the long-term changes we need to create a responsible capitalism. That is something Labour has always found incredibly difficult to get right. In a sense this is part of modernisation. The Crosland argument was that there’s kind of a new consensus about the way that capitalism works and let’s just distribute the proceeds is a very traditional argument. We’re trying to do something which is quite unusual and difficult for the Labour Party and has never been done in our history, actually, which is to have a left view about political economy which isn’t about nationalising the commanding heights, but isn’t about accepting the old settlement. That’s what makes it tough.

At a time when he was being accused in some quarters of retreating into Labour’s “comfort zone”. I wanted to know how his responsible capitalism agenda differed from the kind of Old Labour corporatism that people were familiar with:

It’s not about public ownership, for example. Somebody shouted form the crowd “are you just a capitalist?” I was tempted to shout back, “yes, I’m a responsible capitalist”. But it isn’t about old fashioned socialism, it isn’t about saying we’re just itching to nationalise the commanding heights or take everything into public ownership. That’s what makes it hard.

It’s interesting, I was at this leaders’ summit in Copenhagen on Friday and a Danish journalist said to me that Tony Blair had the Third Way that united the European left, the Americans and the Brits and you don’t have anything like that. And I said that one thing that’s interesting is that if you think about where the American progressives are and where Britain is, actually there’s been a certain convergence around this idea of responsible capitalism. In other words, responsible capitalism, in its own way, was something that continental Europeans would have talked about and we would have shied away from talking about.

I remember going to this Anglo-French summit in 2009 and seeing this press conference with Sarkozy and Gordon Brown and Sarkozy saying that we need responsible capitalism as somebody of the right. And so, in a way, it’s very different from the past, very different from an Old Labour agenda.

But how do you articulate responsible capitalism to a country that has no deep tradition of it compared to other northern European countries?:

If you take the debate I set off in my 2011 party conference speech, the initial response of the right was to say, “Ed Miliband just wants to sit in Whitehall and pick good companies and bad companies”. Then within three months they were saying, “but we’re against crony capitalism too”. I think the right is much more on the defensive on this than we realise. Yes, Cameron said in his statement about Lady Thatcher that no one wants to go back to 90% tax rates and all that. He didn’t say, “and we all agree that the best government is the least government and we should just get out of the way, deregulation is the answer”, which he probably would have said pre-2008. So that old truth is no longer accepted.

I now see clearly what the pieces of this are. It’s about a proper skills system, a proper banking system, an industrial policy, tackling short-termism, infrastructure. It’s about a suite of things, some of which they have in parts of the continent, some of which they have in parts of Scandinavia, that come together and form a body of ideas around responsible capitalism. I think it’s absolutely where the public is.

I suggested that the initial response to his 2011 conference speech in the Labour Party had been one of nervousness. People agreed with it instinctively, but worried about the political implications. Did he think that was an ongoing issue?:

It’s always like that when you have new thinking. It’s always like that when you try and do new things. Just one point in passing. I met this stallholder – he makes T-shirts, he said “give us hope”. And he was saying, “Labour should be standing up for people like me”. Whether it’s the banks, whether it’s how government understands him. So part of the answer about how you make responsible capitalism sing on the doorstep, it’s about the energy companies, the train companies, about being willing to stand up to those vested interests. It’s about championing things that Labour would never have dreamed of championing, like small business and really saying we are the champions of small business. People are against vested interests in the public and the private sector.

What was really fascinating about Thatcher… I watched this interview she did in 1975, it was a conversation she did with William F Buckley, and then an interview she did on BBC Breakfast in 1995 – two links that somebody sent me. What was really striking was her utter consistency – utter consistency of ideas. That’s partly what I was saying in the House of Commons. She wouldn’t have called herself an intellectual, but she really cared about ideas.

Part of Cameron’s problem is that he was hugging a husky in 2006 and hugging a hoodie in 2007, and now he doesn’t care about the huskies and he wants to lock up the hoodies. There’s no sense of consistency. In a way, people sometimes say that I’m too interested in ideas, predistribution and all those sort of wonky things. Of course you’ve got to make the ideas mean something at the kitchen table, but getting the ideas right, the intellectual foundations, is absolutely crucial. And they’re particularly crucial in tough times. It’s easier in good times. But in tough times you’ve got to have a robust sense of where you stand.

The New Right managed to achieve that consistency of vision by boiling their ideas down to a simple maxim; as Ronald Reagan put it, “government is the problem, not the answer”. Did One Nation Labour have an equivalent theme to run with?

The closest I have to that, and I think it’s really got real power, is that the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many. When all is said and done, that is what drives a lot of this difference. That they really think the wealth creators are the people at the top, and just the people at the top. Really, when they say “set people free”, that’s what they’re talking about: “set them free” and it will all be okay. Whereas actually we know – and this is where government comes in – we know that unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed. At its core, that is at least a very big part of the difference.

The train pulled in to Chippenham and the long list of questions I had prepared on welfare, public spending and political strategy had to be put away for another day. Still, I got a clear sense of how Miliband sees a post-Thatcherite world taking shape and his own role in helping to bring it about. He dares to go where New Labour feared to go in challenging many of the fundamentals of her economic settlement.

As we departed, Miliband revealed that he had just discovered that he’d shattered his wrist on holiday ten days before and had been carrying the injury unaware of how serious it was. “Aren’t you in terrible agony?” the doctor asked when he eventually went to have it examined. Apparently not. That resilience has served him well so far. He’s going to need a lot more of it in the next two years.