Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

Ed Miliband and the End of Neo-Liberalism

Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

Ed Miliband and the End of Neo-Liberalism

Article excerpt

An absence of economic credibility; unpopular leadership; fear of the SNP; these explanations have so far dominated discussion of Labour's defeat. Less commented upon but equally important is the longer run decline, political and intellectual, of social democracy across Europe. Social democratic parties continue to retreat. The financial crisis has not, as Ed Miliband expected, weakened the political right. In many countries, including the UK, it appears to have strengthened their grip. The defeat of Denmark's social democratic government, on the heels of Labour's defeat, merely confirms, if any further evidence was needed, that the 2008 financial crisis has not arrested centre-left decline.

As such, Ed Miliband was proven wrong. His preternatural confidence that Labour would win the election (maintained until the very moment of the exit poll) was the product of a wider assessment - or big bet - on the return of Western social democracy from its 40 years of slumber. Miliband assumed that the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath represented a social democratic opportunity - the neo-liberal era was over, or at least it was acutely vulnerable to counter attack in the midst of a mass failure of the private sector. Succour was taken from the respective victories of Obama, Hollande and de Blasio. Politics and economics were moving leftwards in a backlash against financial capitalism and the (related) growth of inequality.

This was the premise of his political strategy. Electoral politics was a battle of ideas and the intellectual advantage lay with social democrats for the first time since the 1970s. The rules of the game as it had been played since Thatcherism were being torn up. As such, economic 'competence' and strong 'leadership', at least as understood by the Coalition and by lobby journalists, were subordinate. (Thus for example Ed's reluctance until it was too late to tell the British people a story about his own personality and character, allowing his opponents to define him on the most unfavourable terms). What mattered was developing a new political economy which would refashion capitalism in a direction compatible with equality and fairness.

It never materialised. There was no big ticket growth strategy. No explanation of how a more sustainable, more equal UK would make its way and pay its way in the world. The manifesto was telling - a series of micro-retail policy offers which, whatever their individual merits, did not hang together as a cross-sectoral growth story. It's in this context that Labour's reputation as 'anti-business' is best understood. For most swing voters paying attention to politics infrequently, what they picked up from snatches heard on TV or radio news bulletins was Ed Miliband's criticism of the bad behaviour of various economic actors (banks, chief executives, government) unleavened by a positive account of Labour's vision of a different economy and society.

The gap between critique and solution is often wide in politics, as in life - but it was rarely wider than in Ed Miliband's hands. The existing way of doing things was fundamentally wrong, the subject of repeated criticism, and must change; but the nature of that overwhelming change remained fuzzy at best - to many Labour MPs as much as the voters.

The question is why. I can think of three possible explanations. The first is that Ed's premise was plain wrong. Neo-liberalism was neither at an end nor was it fatally weakened. Its assumptions actually structure everyday life in a fashion which is properly described as 'hegemonic', suffusing economy, politics, and society as a form of common sense. …

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