It is a convention of modern politics that leaders of opposition parties start their mandates by promising change. This promise is easy enough to understand. In order to win, opposition parties need to demonstrate that they have 'changed' their ways that led to defeat, but also that they offer 'change' to voters. In this regard, Ed Miliband's bid for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2010 followed a well-established pattern. But perhaps less conventional was his insistence on challenging 'established thinking' to develop a 'transformative' agenda that would move the party into a more clearly defined social-democratic mould.
As the results of the 2015 general election made clear, Miliband failed to deliver that transformative change. The party obtained its worst results since 1987, winning only 30.4 per cent of the vote. Labour lost all but one of its seats in Scotland and had disappointing results in suburban England. If the party registered gains in London, its electoral results in the Midlands, the south-east, and the north-east were disappointing to say the least.
The causes of Labour's shocking defeat are varied, but the fact that Miliband's agenda lacked definition and was less than the sum of its parts contributed to it. The remaining sections of this article seek to explain why the Labour leader failed to deliver the transformative change he promised in the early days of his leadership. In particular, this article will show that timing, the resilience of neoliberal ideas and the fact that the Labour leader lacked the support of relevant actors hindered his attempt to develop a transformative agenda that would renew social democracy.
A social-democratic moment?
It was not hubris that led Ed Miliband to believe that he was on course to capture a new 'social-democratic moment'. After all, transformative change often occurs in periods of crisis. In periods that are characterised by great instability and disruption, the principles and assumptions that have guided political action thus far are questioned, because the old recipes no longer seem to work. It is rational then, to expect political actors to search for new ideas that will help them make sense of what is happening, but also to find a reasonably clear road map that will guide their way out of the crisis. At such times, new ideas enable political actors to reduce uncertainty. They do so because, as Mark Blyth argued, 'such ideas provide agents with both a scientific and a normative critique of the existing economy and polity, and a blueprint that specifies how these elements should be constructed'. (1)
The global financial crisis of 2007-08 was one of those moments. (2) This was a crisis that shook the foundations of modern capitalism and which resonated across the world, leaving a destructive trail in its wake. In Europe and the United States, millions of people lost their homes and their jobs, thousands saw their living standards collapse, and governments spent billions saving failing banks, creating huge public deficits in the process. Across the political spectrum, political actors sought to understand what had provoked the crisis, but also attempted to find ways to respond to it.
On the left, social-democratic parties believed that the global financial crisis had opened the way to a new social-democratic moment. Indeed, Ed Miliband's bid for the leadership of the Labour Party suggests that he thought the global financial crisis had created the space for paradigmatic change. In several speeches and articles the Labour leader offered an ideologically cogent analysis of the causes of the global financial crisis and talked about the need to implement radical reforms that would amount to a policy paradigm shift. And Labour's chair of the Policy Review Jon Cruddas took very seriously the task of 're-imagining social democracy'.
However, Miliband only had a broad idea about the direction of travel. As he admitted in his first speech as Labour leader, 'we do not start the journey by claiming we know all the answers now. We do so by setting a direction of change'. (3) But setting that direction of change was far more difficult than he anticipated.
The supply of ideas
If the global financial and economic crisis of 2007-08 had opened the way for the emergence of new ideas, and new ways of thinking about the role of the market and the state in democratic societies, or about what constitutes the good society, it did not automatically follow from there that that open space would be occupied. As Blyth explained, moments of opportunity for fundamental change 'do not lay courses of action' (p275). Indeed, a number of things need to happen, but the first necessity, as Margaret Weir presciently argued, is the availability of ideas that 'provide the rationale for policy departures'. (4) This seems to be a very obvious condition, but it turns out that it was the first obstacle Miliband encountered.
Across Europe, the political right was quick to adapt and to fill that space with the old ideas that were at the origin of the crisis. Indeed, the political centre right was interested in changing the status quo as little as possible. To that effect, centre-right parties, assisted by a sympathetic media, quickly refashioned what undoubtedly had been a crisis of capitalism into a crisis created by a profligate and irresponsible state. European centre-right parties managed to convince voters that the deficit crisis had been created by irresponsible government spending and could only be addressed by a harsh dose of austerity and state retrenchment. With the support of understanding voters, centre-right governments slashed welfare budgets, eliminated thousands of public sector jobs, and eroded labour rights. Perhaps more surprisingly, voters continued to support this policy mix despite its evident failure to eliminate public deficits.
This turn of events has surprised many social democrats, but it may well be, as Andrew Gamble suggested, that neoliberal ideas 'have become embedded both at the level of common sense, helped by the modern media, and as operational codes through the influence of modern economics' (p14). In addition, the resilience of neoliberalism is also explained by the fact that 'there are no longer many political economy alternatives to...