What do you do after you have committed political fratricide to gain the leadership of the Labour Party, taken it leftwards, presided over a general election campaign of which the only memorable feature was a manifesto carved on what looked like a tombstone, suffered a crushing electoral defeat, and made way for Jeremy Corbyn? The answer is obvious: your next self-appointed task must be to put the world to rights.
That, at any rate, is how Ed Miliband sees things, as testified by this book: Go Big: How To Fix Our World. Inspired by the podcast Reasons To Be Cheerful, the good news, apparently, is that the solutions to our problems already exist; the “great news” is that “a once-in-a-generation appetite for change means we can make them happen”. The publishers’ blurb supplies examples from the book of changes already happening: “From a citizens’ assembly in Mongolia to the UK’s largest cycle network in Greater Manchester…”
The headline issues with which Miliband engages include a Green New Deal, fossil fuel divestment, universal social inheritance, citizens’ assemblies, votes at 16, a care economy and affordable housing. Among that melange of modish leftist preoccupations are a few serious issues, notably the problem of affordable housing. But when Miliband claims: “The selling of council homes turned out to be in so many respects deeply damaging”, it is so obvious where he is coming from that hope dies that he might be going anywhere original or interesting.
The Thatcher-era sale of council houses – which broke up Labour’s feudal control of vast estates housing client voters – was one of those occasions, rare in the twentieth century, when the Tory Party reconnected with its Disraelian reforming roots. That reform was caricatured by Labour propaganda as something resembling nineteenth-century Irish evictions, in an attempt to obscure the reality that those in occupation before the sale remained the occupants after the sale, with the added security and dignity of homeownership.
Has Miliband conceived a less reactionary policy towards mass homeownership? According to him, the Mecca for housing reformers is Vienna. “If you live in Vienna, chances are you’re living in some form of social housing, alongside nearly two-thirds of the city’s population.” Is that the bold new vision of the future – a return to pre-Thatcher levels of state dependency in housing, dressed up as an exciting and fresh policy insight?
Here, in terms of bricks and mortar, we see a concrete expression of the social dyslexia of the “progressive” consensus. The leftist mindset is still to hand down from above the prescriptions regarding how ordinary people should live. It takes no account of the cultural exceptionalism expressed in the cliché; “an Englishman’s home is his castle,” differentiating Britons from the French and other societies with limited interest in homeownership. It betrays the left’s continuing blindness towards the aspirations for self-improvement among people in places such as formerly Red Wall constituencies, who want to be in control of their destinies.
Rather than listening to millions of voters directly, Miliband advocates citizens’ assemblies. That is tokenism; the citizens’ assemblies would be designed, like computer models, to produce the results expected from them by the progressive consensus. The author writes: “What innovation helped overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland become the first country to legalise same-sex marriage through a referendum?…Ireland had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world and, to the surprise of many, the assembly recommended by a clear majority that Ireland reform its laws and legalise abortion.”
Those remarks represent a rich seam of Miliband thought. The notion of 21st-century (or even late 20th-century) Ireland as “overwhelmingly Catholic” suggests considerable ignorance of social conditions in Britain’s nearest neighbour. The assumption that the changes described are axiomatically good, illustrates the divisive, presumptuous character of the Miliband worldview.
But there is a less obvious assumption, which speaks volumes about the Miliband agenda for the supposed empowerment of citizens. The two Irish assemblies were composed respectively of sixty-six and ninety-nine ‘randomly’ selected citizens. It is strange that Ed Miliband, a leading Remainer, should be happy to accord such a small cohort the power to trigger legislation when he and his colleagues bitterly resisted the implementation of the democratically expressed wishes of 17.4 million Leave voters at the EU referendum.
Or, rather, it is not strange at all. Citizens’ assemblies would be a helpful alternative, in the progressive view, to the raw democracy of mass voting. The problem for Miliband and his ilk is that the public has rumbled them. Whatever cosmetic, tame substitutes are proposed – citizens’ assemblies, votes at 16 to conscript the immature “woke” constituency – nobody will ever again take seriously the pretensions of the political class to respect electoral opinion.
Beyond that, the political class and the general public are like airlines flying at different altitudes, to avoid a collision. The problems that concern people, such as porous borders or a desire to be able to speak their minds without losing their jobs or being subjected to police harassment, are nowhere on the Miliband radar. He is addressing the problems that ought to concern the public, not those that actually oppress them.
His opening chapter, ‘The End of the World’, is devoted to the climate Grande Peur. In the momentary role of devil’s advocate, Miliband writes: “There is also the danger that meeting concerns about the end of the world is seen to actually conflict with meeting concerns about the end of the week – pursued by people who can afford to do so at the expense of those who can’t.”
Indeed. But that moment of simulated awareness is quickly displaced by the Green gospel, making this book yet another text in the canon of political dyslexia. Public opinion is changing fast, whether it be on British EU membership or the provenance of the Covid-19 virus. But nowhere is a revolution preparing so dramatically as in the future backlash against the Green imposition. Net-zero is beyond affordability. Soaring taxes, draconian energy costs, gaps in energy provision affecting homes and industrial productivity – all based on no credible scientific evidence of a real and present ‘emergency” – represent a perfect storm in the making.
On this, as in most other respects, Ed Miliband is part of the problem, not the solution. It is unlikely that this disjointed, Utopian book will supplant the notorious “EdStone” he produced at the 2015 general election as his most enduring memorial.