Ed Miliband should aim to fundamentally change Britain
Starting with abstract principle or electoral tactics – rather than the condition of the country – is like conducting politics in the dark.
Rather than writing either a policy shopping list or a philosophical tome, the Labour leader would be wise to use his conference speech to craft the opening phase of an altogether more ambitious plan. Learning from the best leaders of both left and right, he should aim not just to win and govern, but change the country in a fundamental way.
A new IPPR report by Graeme Cooke – Still Partying Like It's 1995 – argues that the roots of such a plan can be found in the way the context for politics has changed since New Labour was born in the mid-1990s. Shifts in "political sociology" – the economic, social and cultural trends defining modern Britain – provide the sources of energy for today's political leaders and movements. They are realities to be confronted, but also possibilities up for grabs, to be grasped and shaped.
Two decades ago, Tony Blair captured the optimism of the post-cold-war era and harnessed its political energy to build a project of national modernisation with majoritarian appeal. Since then, the underlying sociological forces – as well as a less tangible sense of national mood – that frame politics have decisively changed. Our instinct is to see in this a set of new policy challenges. But it is at the level of ideas, interests, agency and alliances that the heavy political lifting needs to be done – on four major fronts.
First, the financial crisis, the decoupling of productivity and pay, the polarisation of the labour market and the plateau in female employment mean we need to think differently about how to get the economy moving and ensure working people share in the proceeds of growth. British capitalism is currently failing on its own terms: it is sclerotic and elitist. The centre-left needs to reassert its role as the reformers of capitalism, in the name of a more creative, innovative economy.
That means ensuring markets are open, capital is productive, power is not hoarded and instability is limited. Rather than micro-meddling, we need institutional and structural reforms that change the rules of the game, whether in banking, skills, ownership or wages. The fiscal position only confirms the need for an economic agenda tilted towards reform and away from ameliorative spending. Lasting change will require a broad coalition reaching across employees, business leaders, investors, particular towns and cities, and the burgeoning social economy.
Second, the diversity of families, the pace of population ageing and the failures of the housing market have all intensified over the last 20 years. Rather than allowing this to be cast as signalling fragmentation, the centre-left should aim to draw alliances across the vast majority on low and middle incomes. That would mean recasting the public sphere to protect against the big economic risks that the private market and individuals cannot cater for alone – focusing on childcare, social care, housing, unemployment and pensions.
Such a strategy would pursue "reform with roots", with the potential to endure, rather than focusing on the size of the state or the level of public spending. It would mean making strategic choices in spending, advancing universal services at the expense of some universal benefits and prioritising steps that would raise the employment rate and increase tax revenues. It would expect citizens to meet their responsibilities to society – and promote national, not sectional, interests.
Third, Britain is more socially liberal than it was in the early 1990s, but there has also been resilience in aspects of culturally conservative sentiment (often alienated by the language of modernity and progress). Too often the centre-left has ceded rather than contested values such as patriotism, family, responsibility, hard work, civility and local roots. These basic expressions of popular common sense not only contain political resources, but are consistent with any definition of social democracy.
Recapturing the conservative aspects of centre-left politics, without sacrificing personal freedoms, would allow issues like crime, defence, welfare and immigration to be addressed with greater intellectual confidence and authenticity. It would widen governing strategies beyond just the state, engaging citizens and associations as partners in a shared project. And it would reach into the right's electoral strongholds, helping to forge alliances between those thought to be irrevocable divided.
Fourth, and finally, party loyalty has declined, voting patterns are more volatile and while political participation has flourished (both on and off-line), it has increasingly gone around rather than through the formal party system. This poses the paradoxical task of pursuing a plural majoritarianism: comfortable with disagreement, no monopoly of wisdom, building alliances across the country not just to secure votes but to advance goals. That is a much more demanding task than identifying the latest "Worcester women" or "Mondeo man" to target with micro-offers.
A new centre-left majority must pitch to those that now dominate the electorate – over-50s, private-sector workers, homeowners – while reaching into growing groups, like graduates, professionals, ethnic minorities, renters, and female, part-time service workers. There are many more swing voters, though not all are middle class. Working-class voters are vital, though not all want a liberal-left politics. The risk for the centre-left across Europe is being identified with electoral enclaves, whether the public sector or a cosmopolitan elite, immigrants or those on benefits.
These are the pillars of a centre-left politics which could capture the spirit of the times and harness the new sources of energy in society to make strategic ideological and electoral advances, with the potential to endure. However, the current political moment, almost defined by its uncertainty and anxiety, often creates the sense of limited possibilities. Many doubt that politics can rise to the occasion. So the demanding task for Ed Miliband next week, as for all political leaders, is to look beyond the day-to-day and speak honestly to the country – recovering the gift of politics to offer clarity where there is confusion and give voice to a shared national project.