Labour leader Keir Starmer is languishing in the polls and his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn has become such a non-person in the party that he has lost the whip and is officially an independent MP. But Corbyn's predecessor Ed Miliband appears to be flourishing, back on the front bench as shadow business secretary, hosting a popular podcast and with a new book about how to fix the world's problems.
He is one of Labour's best performers at the House of Commons despatch box and he delivered the most sparkling speech of the year last September when he responded to Boris Johnson in a debate on the Internal Market Bill. It threatened to break international law by reneging on parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, and Johnson wriggled in discomfort on the front bench as Miliband exposed with forensic detail, cold logic and scalding wit the deception at the heart of the Bill.
For a long time after he lost the 2015 general election to David Cameron, Miliband's image was fixed as the man who snatched the Labour leadership from his brother David but failed to persuade the public that he should be prime minister. He says he has no ambition to lead his party again and that his life is happier than it was when he was set on occupying 10 Downing Street.
You go from a world of 100 miles an hour to being a sort of has-been. To put it bluntly, the guy who was
“Honestly, it’s just a much less stressful life not being leader,” he says. “I don’t want to sound selfish about it. I mean, I’m very sorry I didn’t win the election. But I think it’s much better for my family that I didn’t, in the sense that my kids have had a much more normal upbringing than they would otherwise have had.”
However he feels about it now, losing the election was a traumatic experience for Miliband, who suffered a monstering from the right-wing press throughout his leadership and particularly during the campaign. Unlike David Cameron and George Osborne, who left parliament after they lost the 2016 Brexit referendum and made a lot of money since, Miliband decided to stay on as the MP for Doncaster North.
“Staying on is definitely hard. You go from people hanging on your every word to people not giving much of a damn about each word you say. It’s a big change and it’s a big dislocation. So I totally understand the decision to leave. I think it’s also slightly different if you’re a former prime minister. But I felt I wanted to carry on making a contribution, and it felt quite early to leave,” he says.
“That’s not to say it hasn’t been hard. It has been hard. You go from a world of 100 miles an hour, your life being so absolutely diarised to the millisecond, which is also very stressful, and a sense that what you say really matters and is influential, at least on political debate, to being a sort of has-been. To put it bluntly, the guy who was. You wonder, well, what am I doing now?”
The citizens' assembly thing is so interesting because, from a UK perspective, here was this amazing experiment going on in Ireland and we weren't really very conscious of it
It was during these early months on the backbenches under Corbyn that Miliband was approached by radio presenter Geoff Lloyd about doing a podcast together. Reasons to Be Cheerful invites politicians, academics and activists to talk about ideas, often looking for solutions to the most difficult political, economic and social problems.
Go Big: How to Fix Our World grew out of the podcast and it offers ideas for how to deal with everything from the climate crisis to housing and low pay. Miliband looks around the world for answers, spotlighting Vienna’s social housing model, a strike over pay by fast-food workers in New York, and Ireland’s citizens’ assemblies.
"The citizens' assembly thing I think is so interesting because the thing I feel from a UK perspective is that here was this amazing experiment going on in Ireland and we weren't really very conscious of it. We were conscious of the referenda but I think much less known about was the role of the citizens' assemblies in the referenda," he says.
“I think it was The Irish Times that wrote that it helped break the deadlock I think on the abortion question and the equal marriage question, because politicians had seen them as too hot to handle, and it can be deadlock-breaking and make politicians braver. I think for local decision-making, it can be a way to let people into difficult questions. And then also, I think it can provide a sort of intelligence and an on-the-ground expertise, which is important. And I think it is one of the tools to wrestle back some of the trust that has been lost from our democracy because it’s a sense of politicians opening things up. In this model, politicians are placing a constraint on themselves, really.”
When Miliband as Labour leader advocated rent controls and curbs on executive pay, he was ridiculed for being too radical, but proposals like those are now embraced by the political left, right and centre. But he believes that after the financial crash, its aftermath of austerity and the coronavirus pandemic, the public are now ready to think big.
“I think people have a sense that our social, economic and democratic fabric is very, very frayed and that there must be something better. There must be better ways of deciding the pay of key workers or investing in our public services or running our democracy or dealing with the housing crisis. I think people have a sense of: is this it? There must be something better. And I think part of the argument of my book is that if you look around the world there is lots of better to point to and we need to lift our eyes to that,” he says.
“I’m very struck by the experience of the Brexit referendum. My constituency voted to leave by a large majority. And people say, well, that was immigration or that was the EU. And of course, those were factors. But I think it was a deeper sense of discontent, a deeper sense the country wasn’t working for them. And I think we should take note of that and understand that. And, you know, when you go through the financial crisis, the Brexit crisis, what coronavirus has exposed, I think it shows the need for big change.”
When Miliband led Labour he faced in Cameron and Osborne conventional, post-Thatcherite Conservative free-marketeers. Under Theresa May, the Conservatives shifted towards a greater role for the state in industrial policy and redistribution, a change of direction that has gathered pace at a frantic rate under Johnson's free-spending, interventionist premiership.
“They’ve moved into a position of saying we want to tackle the inequalities and problems in our society. Now, I think that is quite significant because when I was leader, the Cameron/Osborne argument was not ‘yes, there are terrible inequalities in our society, we need to tackle them’. It was, ‘actually, things are pretty good’. And I think Johnson, Trump, Brexit, they all represent the right trying to move into the space of – I know that Brexit wasn’t just the right – saying ‘we understand the discontent, we can do something about it’, and I think that’s quite significant, that’s a significant shift in the trend and I think it reflects this deeper issue,” he says.
I think people are smarter than the Johnson government give them credit for. People know what big, fundamental change looks like and what a coat of paint looks like
“They are at least having to talk the language of tackling the inequalities that our society faces. And I think if you think about now, compared to the 1980s on where the terrain of politics is being fought, when Labour was also in opposition, then the terrain of politics was being fought firmly on the right. And now, at least rhetorically, it’s being fought in what has been traditionally left ground.”
Johnson has promised a New Jerusalem, comparing his administration to Clement Atlee's 1945 government which established the National Health Service (NHS). Miliband doubts Johnson's sincerity when he talks about workers' rights and predicts that the current British government will face the same challenge as Trump in having to show results beyond the rhetoric.
“I think it’s a disjuncture between what they say rhetorically and what the reality is, which is going to find them out. And there’s no doubt there is a clientelism aspect to this. But, you know, I think people are smarter than the Johnson government give them credit for. I think people know what big fundamental change looks like and what a sort of coat of paint or a new coat of paint on an insecure or unequal economy looks like,” he says.
Under Starmer, Labour has stopped talking about Brexit, and Miliband agrees that the Remain/Leave argument is now settled and that Britain has to make the best of life outside the EU. But, as his book makes clear, he believes Britain has much to learn from some of its European neighbours if it wants to create a fairer, more prosperous society.
"The UK economy has been bedevilled for a long time by short-termism based on shareholder primacy, based on a wealth-extraction model, and actually a longer-term view moving away from the shareholder primacy to a more pro-investment culture, that can be good for economic growth, that can be good for wealth creation as well as ethically fair. I think when you look at some of our neighbours in Europe and not just France and Germany, but Scandinavia, for example, they can run economies that are pretty exposed kind of in terms of being very much trading nations. And they can have much greater levels of fairness and also be economically successful. And I think there is a lot to learn from the way other countries are doing it," he says.
“I think what’s interesting coming back into this space as a frontbencher is, compared to when I was leader, when some of the things I talked about were seen as controversial – that some companies could be predatory, that inequality was a problem – I think the sentiment or the zeitgeist is different now. I think there has been a change. And I think in a way, the business community partly has been influenced by Brexit because they’ve seen that the fractures in the country helped produce Brexit.”
The hardest part of leadership is not listening to lots of advice, it's actually just reaching into yourself and thinking, what are my instincts?
Miliband’s popularity sank after he became Labour leader but his ratings were better than Starmer’s are today at the same stage of his leadership. Miliband regrets that he was not bolder when he led the party and he notes that Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto was “in primary colours” and increased Labour’s vote share by more than under any leader since 1945.
“The hardest aspect of leadership you might think is taking advice. Actually, the hardest part of leadership is not listening to lots of advice, it’s actually just reaching into yourself and thinking, what are my instincts? What do I want to do? I’m not blaming my advisers for what I did right and wrong. I take full responsibility for what I did. But I always felt I was at my best when I was just following my own instincts rather than anyone else’s, because that’s what leadership is in the end about. I’m not in the advice-giving business, but for me the most important lesson I learnt is be true to yourself. I was true to myself as best I could be in 2015 and the public made their decision,” he says.
"The hardest thing about this is that for everybody – Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair, Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson – there's this principled compromise inherent in the process. Anybody who says 'I don't have to compromise', I just don't believe it. And the question is, where's the line to draw? That's not to say you have to just always sacrifice your principles. But there's always a balance.
“But go with your instincts and then the public will make their decision.”
Go Big: How to Fix Our World is published by The Bodley Head, Vintage at £18.99