What Ed Miliband Did Next: Part III – on Ideas for the Future of the Left

In Part III of our Renewal interview, Ed Miliband and Martin O’Neill pass the time on a railway journey from Leeds to Preston, discussing ideas for the future of the left, touching on the case for non-reformist reforms; the Preston Model; Streeck, Atkinson, Piketty, Polanyi and, of course, A-ha. 

For Part I of the discussion, on Universal Basic Income, click here. For Part II, on Regulating the Tech Industry, click here.

Martin O’Neill: I’d like to broaden things out a bit now and talk about some of the influences on your thinking at the moment. At the Labour Party conference you did an “In Conversation” event with John Harris as part of the programme of The World Transformed, the Momentum-organised fringe, in which you talked, among other things, about your recent thinking on the future of the left. A few books came up in that discussion – Srnicek and Williams’s book, Inventing the Future (Srnicek and Williams 2015), Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? (Streeck 2016), and also an older book, Paul Addison’s The Road to 1945 (Addison 1994), on the background developments that contributed to the successes of the 1945 Labour government. So let me ask you a bit more about what you’ve been reading recently, and about books that you’d recommend to people on the left, or that have been influential for on your own ideas.

Ed Miliband: Sure. I think that Wolfgang Streeck’s book, How Will Capitalism End?, is definitely worth reading. It’s a collection of essays (some of which overlap), and presents a great challenge to the current economic system, and explains why that system is so screwed up.

MO’N: Although Streeck’s book is deeply pessimistic, and one that doesn’t fit so well with your idea of having reasons to be cheerful

Ed M: Right. Yes, with Streeck it’s more a case of reasons to be deeply pessimistic. But it’s useful to have that pessimistic diagnosis laid out so well.

MO’N: So, Streeck sees neoliberal capitalism as so deeply embedded now as to be essentially unreformable…

Ed M: Right. His view is that capitalism is screwed, but we are too. What’s so good about his work, though, is that it shows the need to think big and creatively about reforming the economic system. Incremental reform won’t be enough; we need something that really will be different. So it fits with that idea that Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have – the idea of ‘non-reformist reforms’. The idea is of reforms at the right scale. And that’s part of what’s so interesting about ideas of universal basic income. Those UBI proposals at least feel like a pathway to somewhere different. Or if you look at what is being done in Preston with the Preston Model, or look at proposals for an expansion of cooperative forms of ownership. These sorts of radical reforms also seem to be thinking big in the right way.

MO’N: So you think that the only options open for us now on the left are to think radically, and to think in terms of systemic change of the economic system?

Ed M: Well, let me put it a different way. Those aren’t the only options, but at least there is now an opportunity. People have a real yearning for something better, for a better economic system. Look at polling figures now on people’s views on nationalisation. We have now 83% of people saying that they would want nationalisation of the water companies. There’s a majority in favour of increased nationalisation among all kinds of groups, even majorities among Tory supporters.

MO’N: Well… look at this train we’re on (points at creaking, ancient two-carriage Northern Rail train, on the route from Leeds to Preston). It’s no wonder, is it, that people want the train companies to be nationalised, and hope that we could get something better than this?

Ed M: Exactly! It’s a reaction to objective circumstances.

MO’N: One oddly optimistic thought is that runaway levels of inequality of the sort we’re seeing will always tend in some ways to generate their own political opposition. When things get so bad, and when we have such an extraordinary level of material inequality in society, it becomes in the interests of more and more people to favour a more economically egalitarian kind of politics, and a more egalitarian economy. So maybe that’s a pessimistic form of optimism: the worse things get in terms of inequality, the more people have reason to support radical reform?

Ed M: Exactly. We’re in a different political context now, and I think there’s just so much to play for.

MO’N: Let me ask you about another book, and it’s one that you’ve written about (see Miliband 2016), Tony Atkinson’s final book Inequality: What Can Be Done? (Atkinson 2015). I thought that one of the very sad things about Atkinson’s death earlier this year was that one way of reading that book was as a blueprint for what a Labour government could do, and for what the next Labour government could hope to achieve. It’s full of a real wealth of policy proposals. And it’s a great pity that Atkinson is no longer around to push his ideas forward.

Ed M: Well, I think that Tony Atkinson was an incredibly brilliant thinker and advocate, and his untimely death was a terrible blow. Inequality is about the shape of people’s lives and what life is like for them, and one thing that’s so good about Atkinson’s book is that it really does give ideas for how we could make a more equal society, and do that in a way that transformed what people’s lives are like. So of course Atkinson also wrote brilliantly on inequality for a more academic audience, but it’s great that he also produced a book like Inequality: What Can Be Done? that is also aimed at a broader audience. So while we need to talk about Gini coefficients and about technical questions of inequality, we need also to go beyond that, and to talk about the lived experience of inequality.

MO’N: The lived experience of inequality seems more tangible than ever now, especially for young people…

Ed M: That’s absolutely right. Young people are growing up now in a very unequal society, and of course that’s making them more politically radical. And that’s why the right is really going to be in trouble now. To take one example, one thing I’d mention, about this year’s Labour Party conference, is that The World Transformed really was an inspiring set of events. And even commentators from the Right were remarking on the energy and sense of inspiration around the Labour Party now. It’s a really energising time for the party.

MO’N: It was tremendous. I hadn’t before seen such a wide variety of people, and of age groups, at Labour events. I went to one session on industrial policy that had on the panel Rebecca Long-Bailey, Joe Guinan of the Democracy Collaborative; Alice Martin and Christine Berry, from the New Economics Foundation; Sue Himmelweit, the feminist economist, from the OU; and Kate Hudson of the CWU. And it struck me very forcefully the sheer improbability of being in a fairly large venue which at other times was in use as a night-club, and to see it packed to capacity, to standing-room only, for a serious and wide-ranging two hour session on different approaches for the future of British industrial policy. So something has definitely changed when that kind of event could attract that kind of amazing, enthusiastic audience.

Now, we’re on our way to an event in Preston, and you mentioned already the work being done by Matthew Brown and his colleagues on Preston City Council…

Ed M: Yes, I first read about the Preston Model in the pages of Renewal. There was a brilliant interview with Matthew Brown by a young, erudite political philosopher whose name escapes me…

MO’N: (chuckles) I don’t think he was that young… But I’d like to ask you what your view is of the work being done in the ‘Preston Model’, which looks to use the levers of power within local government – perhaps in a way that people hadn’t previously realised was even possible – to create a more equitable model of economic development, and to support alternative forms of ownership within the local economy. You’ve obviously been impressed by the work that Matthew and his colleagues have been doing in Preston, given that you’re travelling there to speak today, but can you say a bit more about what you think is important in their approach?

Ed M: Sure. I think it’s good that we’re having a discussion about devolution in the UK, finally. But what we can’t do through devolution is to end up reproducing the inequality that we currently have between the north and the south, between different parts of the North and the regions. Devolution should not just be about how you attract high-tech jobs to large cities – it should be about how you regenerate every city and every town. One thing that’s interesting about Matthew Brown’s approach in Preston is that they’re asking the question of “what can we do with the resources we have now within our city?” and they’re also looking at how an answer to that question can involve the development of different models of ownership.

MO’N: Related to the Preston Model, something that Matthew Brown was involved with, along with a number of other people looking at alternative economic models – and this links up with talking about industrial policy, and with systemic economic change – was the Alternative Models of Ownership document that Labour published just a while before the election, and which perhaps didn’t get enough attention at the time, given how its publication was overtaken by events (Labour Party 2017). I was wondering what you made of that report?

Ed M: I think it’s an interesting document, and it’s extremely good that those issues have been put on the agenda. Just as I think that the 2017 Manifesto was also an excellent document, and a great base on which we can now build. The leadership need help and support in developing the ideas in their agenda, and that’s something that they can’t be expected to do on their own. I think there’s a lot of scope for filling in the gaps where they exist, and in people making a contribution to developing this agenda. And so that’s something that I want to help to do.

MO’N: It’s very important, I think, that issues of ownership in the economy are again on Labour’s agenda. In one way that could be seen as quite an old-fashioned left agenda, but these issues couldn’t be more relevant again today. There seem to be two sets of reasons at work here: the first relates to what we’ve already discussed [see part two] as regards the tendency towards monopoly or at least towards oligopoly in the tech sector, and the increasing importance of these few giant firms, and so their ownership and control could not be more important. And there’s a second set of reasons connected to Piketty’s diagnosis of the future trajectory of capitalism, and the rising capital share of income, as returns to labour diminish (Piketty 2014). So ownership of capital has to be at the centre of the agenda for the left, and perhaps instead there’s been too much of a focus in the recent past instead on minimal wage levels, and so on, at the expense of thinking more about capital and ownership (O’Neill 2017).

Ed M: Those other issues are important, but you’re saying that Labour too often left questions of wealth out of the equation?

MO’N: Exactly.

Ed M: Have you got a “r > g” t-shirt?

MO’N: Not even a mug, I’m afraid …

Ed M: I think you’re right about these questions of ownership. And one of the questions is about how you can do this at scale. The work done in the Preston Model, or the expansion of cooperatives, all of these are important, but we need also to think about how this can be scaled up.

MO’N: One thing I’m curious to ask you. Before you became an MP, but after you’d already been working in politics for a long time, you spent a year and a half on a career break from politics, spending time at Harvard.

Ed M: My political detox…

MO’N: And I’m curious about what, looking back on that time, you feel was most important, in terms of what you took away from that time for your thinking about politics since then.

Ed M: I think that what that time reinforced in my mind – which was my political instinct anyway – was about the limits of markets. I was reading Polanyi – and of course I’d recommend Polanyi’s The Great Transformation to Renewal readers (Polanyi 2001 [1944]). And I was influenced by going to Michael Sandel’s course on “Morals, Markets and the Law”, which was great in exploring the limits of markets (see also Sandel 2012). It was a great time to go away and read and think, and to get greater depth in thinking about things at the intersection of political theory and political economy. When I was leader I looked back at what I’d written while I was there – which I hadn’t actually published – and actually it was consistent with what I felt then, and what I still feel now, about markets and their limits, and about the differences between a market economy and a market society.

MO’N: One absolutely final question. I’ve recently seen some lively debate recently on the question of what is the greatest A-ha song. I’ve seen the case made for “Hunting High and Low” or “The Sun Always Shines on TV”. What’s your own view?

Ed M: How could there be any doubt? “Take On Me”, obviously.

MO’N: Good to have that on the record. I guess our time is up…

Ed M:  I’ll just finish by saying that I’d encourage Renewal readers to get in touch with ideas for topics that we should cover in Reasons to be Cheerful. I hope they’re enjoying the podcasts, and we’re eager to hear ideas for what we should cover.

MO’N: Thank you. And many thanks for taking the time to talk to Renewal.

More on What Ed Miliband Did Next can be found in Part I (on Universal Basic Income) and Part II (on Regulating the Tech Industry) of this conversation. With thanks to Alex Feis-Bryce.

Reasons to be Cheerful, Ed Miliband’s podcast series with Geoff Lloyd, on progressive ideas for the future, is available via iTunes and all good podcast platforms. Ed and Geoff can be contacted at reasons@cheerfulpodcast.com

References and Further Reading:

Addison, P. (1994), The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War, revised edition, (Pimlico)

Brown, M. and O’Neill, M. (2016), “The Road to Socialism is the A59: the Preston Model,” Renewal: a Journal of Social Democracy, 24 (2), 69-78

Guinan, J. (2015), “Bring Back the Institute for Workers’ Control,” Renewal: a Journal of Social Democracy, 23 (4), 11-36

Hatherley, O. (2016), “One Click at a Time,” London Review of Books, 38 (13), 3-6

Kelly, M. (2012), Owning the Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution, (Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

Labour Party (2017), Alternative Models of Ownership

__________, For the Many, Not the Few: 2017 Labour Party Manifesto

Lawrence, M. (2017), “Owning the Future,” Goldsmiths Political Economy Research Centre (PERC), online here:

Lawrence, M. and Mason, N. (2017), Capital Gains: Broadening Company Ownership in the UK Economy, (IPPR)

Miliband, E. (2016), “The Inequality Problem,” London Review of Books, 38 (3), 19-20

O’Neill, M. (2015), “James Meade and Predistribution: 50 years before his time,” Policy Network

O’Neill, M. (2017), “Philosophy and Public Policy after Piketty,” Journal of Political Philosophy, 25 (3), 343-375

Piketty, T. (2014), Capital in the Twenty-First Century, (Harvard University Press)

Polanyi, K. (2001)[1944], The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, (Beacon Press)

Sandel, M. (2012), What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, (Penguin Books)

Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015), Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, (Verso Books)

Streeck, W. (2016), How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System, (Verso)