Go even bigger!

Mike Phipps reviews Go Big: How to fix our world, by Ed Miliband, published by the Bodley Head

Is there life after being leader of the Labour Party? It would be unfortunate if there wasn’t, given that Ed Miliband, Labour’s youngest ever leader, and quit the job at only 45. Miliband is a classic example of a man who came into the job with some good ideas, but lacked both the experience and the resoluteness to withstand the huge pressures – above all from the apparatus of the Labour Party and much of the PLP, which treated him with the same disdain it displayed towards his successor.

Miliband continues to have big ideas. And having held ministerial office in the last Labour government, he has some understanding of the practical obstacles to achieving them.

The International Panel on Climate Change reckons we have a decade to cut global emissions by half to have a chance of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees C.  Miliband to his credit understands that this is not a technological problem: rather, it cannot be solved “while leaving other injustices in place.” This is why he believes the Green New Deal, and its recognition of the scale of transformation needed, is an idea of genius. In the UK alone, “we must change the way we heat nearly thirty million homes, take tens of millions of petrol and diesel care off the road, alter the way we use our land and the manner in which we power our country.”

Miliband is an optimist who sees the upside to these challenges. Ensuring proper home insulation will require 200,000 extra jobs over the next thirty years. We are making great strides at offshore wind generation. And the cost is lower than many might think – less than 1% of national income per year.

And he has his examples lined up. For ten years in a row, Vienna has been rated the best place in the world to live. The secret of its success is affordable accommodation, underpinned by a large stock of social housing. Contrast the UK which has seen a surge in private renting, taking an ever larger share of renters’ income.

Miliband is right to lay the blame for this retrograde direction in housing policy at Thatcher’s door, but one would expect a former minister in a New Labour government to have some insights into why so little social housing was built in the Blair-Brown years. Over the last thirty years, an average of 24,000 social homes were built a year, whereas a recent cross-party commission organised by the housing charity Shelter, which included former ministers from the Cameron government, recommended that 150,000 social homes need to be built every year for the next two decades.

Miliband is also keen on Universal Basic Income, citing Alaska’s guaranteed annual payment of $2,000 a year to every citizen as a precursor. Being given unconditional cash is often seen as a disincentive to work, but a large amount of evidence suggests that its impact on employment is minimal. The problem is, as one academic suggested, that an affordable UBI is inadequate, while an adequate one is unaffordable. Miliband chews this over, but apart from emphasising universality and the idea that every little helps, he does not find a lasting solution.

Some of the ideas in this book are neither particularly new nor radical. The idea that capitalist companies should take into account the needs of all stakeholders, rather than just their shareholders, has been around a while. Stakeholder capitalism is still capitalism, based on the profit motive and the extraction of surplus value. The partnership that Miliband envisages between state and private sector has in practice invariably operated to the latter’s benefit, with profit privatised and the taxpayer picking up the cost of risk and losses.

‘Co-determination’ and other forms of workers’ participation have also long been practised across Europe, but the evidence shows, as Miliband admits, that when a business is in trouble, the scheme may do little more than promote work-sharing over compulsory redundancies. Even Theresa May was prepared to embrace workers on the boards of companies, although like so many other ideas of her premiership, it never happened.

To its credit, the book does look beyond the market. But it invariably makes a moral case against the system, rooted in the Robert Kennedy’s repugnance for a gross national product that “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. Moreover, many of the impassioned calls for reform are rooted in a drive to improve capitalist efficiency. Miliband’s call for more universal childcare, for example, is justified by data that suggests it could produce a 7 to 13% per year economic return.

Likewise more flexible hours are favoured, partly because the employer benefits as much as the worker. And if not? The problem with this approach is that life-enhancing reforms that don’t generate these economic benefits are likely to be deprioritised.

Still, there are some compelling studies of how life can be made better with a little state intervention. Interestingly, many of Miiband’s examples draw on the local state, such as cycling schemes or free public transport, while his bigger ideas for revitalising government are a bit underwhelming: citizens’ assemblies, a lower voting age, more regional devolution, community empowerment.

The most interesting section of the book is about how to get the changes necessary – not just by amending laws, but by changing where power lies and by transforming the national conversation. Since quitting the leadership of the Labour Party, Miliband has become quite a fan of community organising, quoting Saul Alinsky’s organising principles and the need for tactical ruthlessness. There are some telling examples of grassroots organising, including the strike the Bakers Union organised in 2017 in McDonald’s to get a decent pay rise for fast food workers, and the work of the new independent unions like the IWGB in winning cleaners a living wage. 

He’s also keen on campaigns to divest from fossil fuels, and the Preston model of local government – the council was the first in the north of England to guarantee a living wage to all of its staff. Harnessing the power of local anchor institutions is central to Preston’s strategy – but that logic could be applied across the public sector, which is responsible for nearly £300 billion procurement spending every year. “Imagine if hospitals across the UK had an explicit duty to support their regional economies,” suggests Miliband, “it could have an extraordinary impact.”

Climate justice, Black Lives Matter – Miliband’s enthusiasm in infectious. Perhaps he really did get the Labour leadership too early, but now he’s back in the Shadow Cabinet now, he has ample opportunity to push for some of these popular and radical ideas to be at the forefront of Labour’s agenda. Go Big is exactly what the Party needs to do. So what’s stopping it?

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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