Centrism for a Sceptical Age

Ed Miliband is a serious, thoughtful, intellectually curious ideologue of the Labour centre and understanding this should shape socialist tactics and strategy.

6 min read

Back in 2016 a friend said that Corbynites should be wary of Ed Miliband making a political comeback. She even suggested one day he could be back in the Shadow Cabinet or even – stop laughing – be talked of as returning as leader.

I didn’t take it seriously. Miliband’s name then was not just associated with political failure, it was coterminous with the half-arsed flip-flopping, austerity-accepting, headline-chasing, both sides-ing degeneration of the New Labour project into a joke whose punchline was speedy boarding at airports for veterans.

His time as leader saw Miliband perpetually afraid of the media’s ‘Red Ed’ tag, “these strikes are wrong” living long and painfully in the memory of trade unionists who looked to the frontbench for support against austerity.
2015’s ‘controls on immigration’ mug hardly came without warning: Phil Woolas was re-appointed by Miliband as immigration spokesperson despite outrage at election leaflets claiming that Islamic extremists were supporting the Lib Dems “to punish Phil for being strong on immigration” and opposing their “plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay”.

Miliband’s highlight was an energy price cap which reaped a backlash that terrified him into never daring to say anything so remotely radical again.

Tackling the left was as much of a priority as opposing the Government. After the manufactured scandal around Falkirk, Miliband commissioned Blair-era General Secretary Ray Collins to come up with a way to loosen the trade unions’ influence over party finances and leadership elections: reforms which ultimately helped lead to Jeremy Corbyn’s unforeseen success. Even when doing their best to screw over the left, Miliband’s Labour tripped over its shoelaces. As an era it was a disappointment to many, not least because everyone knew how smart, well-versed in Labour history and political experienced Miliband was, and what an insightful writer his father had been.

Soon after moving on from his time as a SpAd to Harriet Harman and Gordon Brown for the safe seat of Doncaster North, Miliband had given a speech called ‘Why Ideology Matters’ to the Fabian Northern Conference, celebrating the work of Tony Crosland: author of the foundational text of Labour revisionism, influential for decades since for its claim that nationalisation was no longer necessary as capitalism had been fundamentally reformed into something different since World War II.

In his paean of praise to The Future of Socialism on its fiftieth anniversary, Miliband accurately and crucially noted that for Crosland dropping public ownership was not tactical opportunism but a genuine ideological commitment, quoting him as saying to Roy Hattersley that “The Centre must remember and keep reminding people that we are ideologists too”.

In 2006 that meant coming to terms “with the new individualism that undoubtedly exists today and has many important attributes: a sense of motivation, ambition and expectations” while framing its alternative as “a society imbued with a sense of responsibility that we owe to each other” [my italics]. To achieve that, policy wonk Miliband categorised ‘mechanisms’: “Some will involve greater individual choice, some well involve collective discussion and debate and some are simply about those in authority being better at listening and reaching out to individuals.”

It is always worth reminding ourselves that there are ideologists in all strands of Labour Party thinking, and it is to Miliband’s credit that he spelled it out. While for some a seat in Parliament may be little more than a lifetime’s subsidised meal tickets, for the politically successful (including Blair) their hatred of socialism or faith in NATO or faith in the power of markets is no less deeply held than our own views.

It is to Miliband’s discredit that he did not fight hard enough for the collectivist elements of mainstream Labour ideology against the headbangers to his right, albeit while under constant siege from them, but his tangible regret now manifests itself in a determination to use this second chance to nail down that Labour centrism as hard as possible. Few things exemplify it better than his decision to entrust the disembowelling of the Green New Deal policy passed at Conference 2019 to Alan Whitehead, a supposed technical expert and known opponent of public ownership in the energy sector. (Miliband’s other junior frontbenchers include two other brains of the soft left in Matthew Pennycook and Chi Onwurah.)

So why would anyone on the left of the Labour Party have any illusions in Ed Miliband? One might trace it back to Conference 2017 when The World Transformed invited him to chair a ‘pub quiz’ at their Conference fringe event. He returned, speaking at a 2019 panel on ‘Launching a Manifesto for the Movement’ with John McDonnell, Hilary Wainwright and Faiza Shaheen.

In 2019 a new thinktank of “pro-Corbyn academics”, according to the Financial Times, was launched with Miliband on its advisory board. His podcast has featured discussions of community wealth building, universal basic income, jobs guarantees, the four-day-week and universal childcare, revealing along the way a willingness to listen to those on his left far in excess of any fight for left-wing ideas within the Shadow Cabinet.

And in recent weeks his left credentials have been burnished yet further by implication: both by the ejection of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the most vocal representative of the left, from the Shadow Cabinet and by anonymous hostile briefings from Blairite irredentist frontbenchers. After a series of shattering defeats, nothing could comfort us more warmly than a quaint faith in Red Ed fighting the good fight for us against the massed ranks of Rachel Reeves and Ian Murray.

But having warned against the left sowing illusions in other frontbenchers, it’s worth considering the particular dangers posed if individuals on the left embrace Milibandism v2. That begins with what should be the uncontroversial observation that as socialists we don’t automatically attach ourselves to the left-most people in powerful positions in the hope of having influence. There are naturally times when socialists might choose to support the least bad among non-socialist candidates, sometimes to extract concessions (if in a position of strength) but more often arising from resigned pragmatism.

Many socialists backed Miliband – at least on the second ballot – in 2010, and arguably our transfers from Diane Abbott helped him over the line in defeating his more overtly Atlanticist brother. Many simultaneously supported Jon Cruddas for Deputy: at the time still reinventing himself after spells as a Party HQ policy wonk and Blair henchman but still dismissive of the ‘hard left’ and wedded to the opaque, think-tank world in which Compass operated when it still semi existed.

But in making those decisions, we accepted at the last our weakness: our inability to stand socialist candidates who had a chance of winning. That changed with Jeremy Corbyn: the left should not limit its horizons to supporting MPs of the centre as a bulwark against the Labour right, especially ones as compromised as Miliband, unless explicitly accepting its return to the status of a museum artifact.

The only other conceivable reason for playing down the differences between Miliband and the Labour left would be if one genuinely believed that they didn’t exist, and I really don’t want to believe that – even in these disorientating times – comrades are that stupid. Going back to the pre-Corbyn era of a parliamentary left small, fragmented and reduced to begging for minor concessions from non-socialists would represent the dying whimper of the Corbynite movement and everything it fought for. From MPs, it would be an unforgivable betrayal. From those given a media platform by the thousands of Corbyn supporters, it would be to spit in the eyes of those whose loyalty to socialist ideals put them there.

We don’t have to hate our enemies. Ed Miliband is a serious, thoughtful, intellectually curious ideologue of the Labour centre, who distinguished himself during the Corbyn era by not plumbing the moral depths of many of his fellow-thinkers, but who has shown himself to be analytically open-minded and organisationally ruthless. Underestimating either Miliband himself or his distance from the left could ultimately extinguish any lingering hopes of a lasting legacy for Corbyn.


Nicky Hutchinson