Review: “Go Big” by Ed Miliband

Edmund Potts

Who is the real Ed Miliband?

Nobody, it seems, has a bad word to say these days about Ed Miliband. It’s not hard to see why: only those with a heart of stone could fail to be faintly outraged at the way he was treated by the press throughout his tenure as leader of the Labour Party, not least being cast in the role of Cain to his odious and entitled brother’s Abel. Mention his name, even to those who spent 2010 to 2015 in despair at his lack of effective opposition to the Coalition government, and you will likely hear about what a nice man he is.

This has been particularly noticeable among the Corbynite left, where Miliband underwent a rehabilitation of sorts, being welcomed into the left’s efforts to build support for a Green New Deal – or the related but not identical “Green Industrial Revolution”.

The overall tenor of his reception was that he was a misunderstood leftwinger returning to the fold. His mauling while party leader was viewed largely sympathetically, as he publicly stated that he should have been “bolder”, the implication clearly being that he had mistakenly sought to compromise too much with the ghoulish Parliamentary Labour Party. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20.

Sadly the warm embrace of Miliband by sections of the Corbyn movement was not the generosity shown to a prodigal son, but a dangerous meeting of minds in a soup of political confusion. While happy to dish out scorn on the most rabidly right-wing Labour MPs, the Labour left overlooked the fact that Miliband’s tenure as leader had consisted of a fundamental capitulation to the politics of austerity. He and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls went into the 2015 general election promising not to reverse any of the Tories’ cuts. In failing to even broach such fundamental differences with the party’s centre left, Corbynism found itself inexorably drawn away from its original radicalism. John Trickett wrote to Labour councillors ordering them to implement cuts budgets; John McDonnell’s long standing demands for public ownership of the banking system became proposals for “regional investment banks”.

As long as there is no reckoning over political differences between different trends in the labour movement, we are unlikely to move forward with any clarity. This makes it all the more important to engage when figures such as Miliband produce books and other substantial works rather than TV soundbites; it allows us to think about what they’re saying and whether or not we agree.

Why this book, and why now?

Against the backdrop of a personal rehabilitation emerges this new book, boldly entitled “GO BIG”, based on Miliband’s successful and often entertaining podcast “Reasons to be Cheerful”.

In each of the 20 chapters, Miliband examines in turn a social ill or structural problem in British society or the economy which is holding back progressive change (the word socialist or socialism are nowhere to be found in this book, just like their corollaries, capitalist and capitalism). Miliband breaks down the problem, explains with considerable clarity why in his view there is an obvious “big” solution, and then presents a selection of examples to be learned from, whether countries with better regulatory frameworks on a particular issue, or grassroots activists offering innovative solutions or supporting those marginalised.

The overall politics of the book and its author are unavoidable, yet also curiously obscured. The book is clearly political in the most basic sense – it looks exclusively at socioeconomic problems and offers “big” solutions. Yet at every turn Miliband is keen to stress that he is not writing an alternative Labour manifesto, but simply contributing helpful ideas.

The dust jacket offers endorsements from various left-liberal luminaries; Rutger Breman, Philip Pullman, Will Hutton et al – no trade union leaders or activists. It is clear who the book is aimed at.

Misdiagnosis of the problem

In common with all Miliband’s social-democratic and left-liberal antecessors, he spends much of the book dashing about and firefighting social ills which his own political tradition was complicit in creating, or at least have done nothing substantial to combat. In the year of publication, 2021, we are sagely informed that “our benefits system doesn’t provide those in need with enough to subsist”. (5) A sorry state of affairs indeed. It rather begs the question of who shares in the blame for this, if not the Labour government of Gordon Brown, in which Ed Miliband was a minister, which overhauled the benefits system to include the hated Work Capability Assessment, notorious for causing benefit claimants to starve to death.

But to cast this as one individual’s attempt to launder his own reputation would be both fruitless and would miss the wider point. The bigger flaw in the book, which is in turn the central flaw of Miliband’s politics, is that he is utterly incapable of a broader analysis of the class society in which we live. This in turn means that his proposed “big” solutions, while not all to be dismissed out of hand, are prone to falling flat on their face.

An example: he notes that revenues from natural resources have all-too-frequently been squandered by governments on day-to-day spending – the North Sea oil so beloved of Scottish Nationalists is a case in point. Looking abroad, he asks why we do not instead invest those revenues into a Sovereign Wealth Fund, as did Norway and Alaska.

Norway was, until the discovery of oil in the 1960s, a relatively poor country on Europe’s periphery. Today, it enjoys one of the highest standards of living on the continent, thanks in large part to the decision taken to invest its oil money in a huge sovereign wealth fund. It is not hard to see why huge sums of money for a social democratic government to invest in public services and infrastructure is an alluring concept for Miliband.

A similar example examined is that of Alaska, whose Permanent Fund (which invests the state’s oil money) pays every citizen an annual dividend of around $1500, a nod in the direction of a universal basic income.

This all sounds lovely until one asks the most basic question, the question which should have been asked first: where is the money coming from? Do the oil revenues invested into the sovereign wealth fund grow by magic? Are they magic beans which, with a little water, grow overnight into a mighty beanstalk?

Of course not. The oil funds operate much like any other institutional investor on the world market, and trade in shares of exploitative capitalist businesses which they hope will give them a return on their investment.

How, in turn, do these companies give a return on investment? The answer is, quite simply, by appropriating the surplus value generated by their workforce. We must go right to the source of value – the company’s workers exert their labour-power in productive processes. In so doing, they generate value in the form of commodities, to be sold on the market. But the value of these commodities is greater than the wages received by the workers – the excess, or surplus value, is taken by the owners of the company – the capitalists. Some will be reinvested in overhead costs like electricity or repairs, but the rest will be allocated to owners and investors in the form of profit.

If the Norwegian Oil Fund’s return on its investment is to be maximised, those workers must be forced to work harder, for longer hours, on lower wages. If they are not, or if – heaven forbid – they ever choose to go on strike for higher wages, the Sovereign Wealth Fund is unlikely to invest in their company. The more of the surplus value the workers are able to claim, the less profit the investors would make. It would become a bad investment.

In this way we can see why two of the Oil Fund’s largest holdings in 2020 were shares in Apple and Amazon. Whether crushing strikes and driving workers to suicide in China, or obliging delivery workers to pee in bottles rather than be late in making a delivery, these are two companies that truly know how to maximise profits at the expense of their workers.

The Oil Fund thereby sets itself up as a vehicle for the capitalist class, that is, the class enemy of the workers who generate its returns. For a programme of social democratic public spending to be based on such a fund necessarily entails a pact between Norwegian workers and the Norwegian capitalist state. The terms of this pact are that Norwegian workers get better hospitals and schools and roads, but only paid for from the pockets of workers in Nanakramguda or Nashville.

Miliband either cannot or will not see the wood for the trees and comprehend that the existence of exploitation and inequality in the world is neither a new phenomenon, nor an unfortunate by-product of some particular phase of capitalism which can be rectified with better rules or more caring capitalists. Exploitation is at the heart of the system we live in.

See, for example, Miliband’s lament at “patient capital” having been displaced by “impatient capital”. (74) One feels compelled to ask – what was it that caused everybody to become so impatient all of a sudden? Was it everybody owning cars? Too much time on Twitter? Too much caffeine?

The answer of course is that we are in a historical period where the capitalist system is declining in both profitability and stability. But to acknowledge this would be to acknowledge that the proposed foundations of Miliband’s revitalised reformism are, in the main, shifting sands.

Searching in vain for a non-socialist solution

One hesitates to invoke Miliband’s father, as if genetics were any predictor of political allegiance, but perhaps the point is made simply by observing that it is nigh-on impossible for Miliband to be ignorant of the fundamentals of Marxism and its critique of capitalist society. The analytical void at the heart of this book is best explained not by ignorance, but rather by the author’s determination to search in vain for a non-socialist solution to the problems ailing society.

Miliband talks about constraining markets. But markets are not forces of nature like the sea, to be kept at bay with simple interventions like flood defence barriers. Again, without understanding the antagonistic nature of class society we will get nowhere. The point is not merely that markets erode the good things in life, cf. Polanyi; it is that the class best served by markets will undermine , attack or even exterminate those who try to constrain them. The ruling class achieves this through the state, with laws to constrain trade union activity, police repression of strikes, and surveillance of those who seek political change. This threat can only be resolved by the emancipation of humanity from class society, which involves emancipation from the state.

We have had decades of successive Labour governments seeking more or less enthusiastically to carve out a space for social reform by constraining markets. Look where it has got us. At every turn, the capitalist class was not eliminated but merely temporarily bought off, sent away with tidy pay-offs to bide its time, waiting for the tide to turn.

Have a scrap of socialism, as a treat

While keen to stress that the book is “not a Labour manifesto”, Miliband does make a significant nod in the direction of the Labour left (especially in its Corbynite iteration) by promoting both the role of trade unions, and expanded worker ownership of businesses.

Workers in cooperatives generally enjoy the potential of much higher wages, and greater control over work which is a key sphere of their lives. Cooperatives are of course not a solution to the problem of exploitation in general – not that Miliband is looking for such a solution. He cites a prominent example, the Mondragon Corporation, a successful cooperative conglomerate based in Spain. Unfortunately Mondragon also provides a clear demonstration of the limits to the effectiveness of cooperatives as islands of emancipation within the capitalist ocean; for many years Mondragon has owned factories in Brazil, without making the workers there members of the cooperative. Far from being equal cooperators, the members in Spain have been transformed into collective capitalists, exploiters of their employees across the Atlantic.

Even setting aside that cooperatives are in themselves not a clear route to socialism, the bar for what Miliband considers social progress is shockingly low. We may need reminding of the title’s exhortation to “Go Big” when he suggests that “By some accounts, if we really put our minds to it, 10% of the economy could be worker-owned within a decade”. (201) Given that employee-owned businesses including sole trades currently contribute around 2-4% of GDP, this is really meagre stuff; not least when one bears in mind the scale and urgency of the climate emergency facing us – an issue which is supposed to be Miliband’s strong suit. How on earth are we meant to undertake the urgent task of reconfiguring and decarbonising the economy if 90% of it is to remain outside our control?

Resuscitating liberal democracy

Elsewhere Miliband promotes “Citizens’ Assemblies”, that latest fad so beloved of reformers after having played a role in progressive constitutional changes in Ireland and elsewhere.

Ultimately these should be seen for what they are – just another way of bourgeois politicians passing the buck for even a modicum of progressive change. Suppose a citizens’ assembly were to reject gay marriage, or abortion rights? Then of course it would not be the fault of the government, but that of the assembly. This is doubly the case when an assembly is to be followed by a referendum – what is it other than a big, expensive focus group.

We can learn as much about citizens’ assemblies from the questions that are not delegated to them. For instance, public polls regularly show that a majority of UK voters are in favour of sweeping public ownership to a level not seen since the 1970s. What would happen if a citizens’ assembly were to recommend this? Answer that question, and it shall instantly become clear why we will never have a citizens’ assembly to consider that issue.

Can’t we all just get along?

At first blush it may seem unfair to single out Miliband for criticism on the above issues. After all, wasn’t the Corbynite policy platform quite timid when it came to public ownership, let alone workers’ control of industry?

Again, we must resist the reading of Miliband as the prodigal Corbynite returning home. His enthusiasm for worker-ownership, capped at 10%, is in fact entirely consistent with his promotion of “One Nation Labour” during his time as leader. The phrase was borrowed from 19th-century Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the heart of whose theory of One Nation Conservatism is that, in contrast to the socialist programme of bringing an end to the rule of class society, the ruling class should through reforms and charitable spending bring together those “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.

The point of Miliband’s proposals are not to aid the working class in winning its struggles; nor even to gently popularise a limited form of economic democracy which could at some later date be adopted wholesale. His desire is explicitly to reduce class conflict and reconcile our class with those who exploit us.

He makes this abundantly clear when he notes approvingly “What’s striking to me is that in many workplaces in the UK with a strong union presence, the day to day activities of the union focus on working with the employer for the overall success of the company. It’s not about conflict, but cooperation.” (230)

By picking out a few examples of good bosses being generous to their workers, Miliband clearly believes – with no small satisfaction – that he has disproven the general thesis that society is in the main divided into two great classes, locked together in struggle.

He notes that this view implies “that bosses are constantly trying to maximise profits and do down the workers”. Outside of fiery rhetoric borne of oppression, no socialist would seriously suggest this. The boss as an individual does not spend their every waking moment carefully plotting how to ramp up exploitation at every turn. Many will have families, lovers, hobbies, social engagements – and their position allows them considerably more time for all that than we enjoy under their system.

The class nature of society is not perfectly reducible to every single action ever taken by every single boss and every single worker. To have to state such an obvious objection shows how facile Miliband’s view of class society must be. The point is rather that as social classes of which each boss and each worker is a notional representative, their decisions are conditioned by the battle for control over the surplus. When the chips are down, each will be driven towards acting in their own self-interest. It is not at all required that they do so consciously or consistently.

Finally we may note that, in common with so many Labour MPs, Miliband clearly has only a very blinkered view of the labour movement and its potential power, and how the ruling class has sought to shackle us. Why is it, one must ask, that the weakened unions of today tend to favour cooperation over conflict? Clearly part of the answer is that the edifice of anti-trade union law in this country has made it all but illegal to go on strike! Any unions transgressing this commandment risk having their assets seized by the state.

It is telling that Miliband refers to these workplaces as having a “strong union presence”. Common sense tells us that however many members your branch might have, if your union spends its time cooperating with management rather than fighting for your interests, then the union presence is not strong, but weak.

Too little, too late

There is a ghost at this feast of earnest solutions to worthy issues. When all of these problems were merely concerning specks on the horizon; when they were developing from small problems into chronic social issues, tearing across the fabric of our society – where was the leadership of the Labour Party and the faction of the establishment it represents? Where were Miliband and his political predecessors?

The answer is, of course, that every step they have resisted calling for a genuine fightback against the ruling class offensive which exacerbated the problems at the heart of each chapter in this book. Whether on housing where Labour have consistently refused either to repeal Thatcher’s disastrous “right to buy”, or to replenish stocks of social housing; on workplace democracy, where the anti-trade union laws have gone unchallenged; or on public services, where Miliband went into the 2015 general election promising that he would not reverse a single cut made; at every turn, we have seen where “cooperation rather than conflict” leads.

Miliband may be articulate, personable, even likeable; but he is unmistakably cut from the cloth of countless Labour leaders who resist at every turn the only force which could solve the world’s problems: that is, the working class, organised into a great united movement, and armed with the ideological and material means to take power. In the absence of such a force, things will continue to degenerate, and all the eclectic books of good ideas in the world will not make the slightest bit of difference.

This may not be the world that Miliband wanted. But it is a world that Milibandism helped to create.

Ed Miliband’s Go Big (The Bodley Head, London, 2021) is available now via Penguin.