The Blog

Have the Planets Aligned for Ed Miliband?

Over the last century, there have been periods during which one set of commonly accepted values in British politics is replaced by another. This occurs as a result of changing real world circumstances, coupled with a sense that existing principles have become outdated. Governments may come and go as a result of popular dissatisfaction with political parties, but the broader trend occurs in twenty to thirty year shifts.

In the 1910s, the beginnings of the British welfare state were established in reaction to repeated failures to tackle poverty in the previous century. Then, after the devastation of the Great Depression and two world wars, the 1945 Labour government established the NHS and a series of welfare packages, appealing to the strong public appetite of the time.

The 1970s saw the breakdown of the Post-War Consensus and rising tensions between trade unions, businesses and government. This led to the Conservatives, under Thatcher and Major, introducing trade union restrictions, privatization, and tax cuts for higher earners. They remained in government for eighteen years and their policies were maintained through New Labour's thirteen, under the guise of the Third Way.

Throughout these most recent decades, the focus of mainstream politics has been upon populist ideas of individual success and the rolling back of the state. However, whilst polices based on these ideas have accelerated under the coalition government, another fascinating ideological shift is now occurring.

Many ideas that have been brushed under the rug for the past thirty years or so are now reforming into a new populism. Since the 2008 financial crisis, it has become acceptable to question capitalism as an economic system in the mainstream media. Even just under ten years ago, it would have been unfathomable for any high-profile politician to use the term "rich" in a pejorative manner. At the non-debate between Ed Miliband and David Cameron at the end of March, Miliband declared he was a socialist, hardly a statement that Tony Blair could have made during his tenure on a programme watched by 3.2 million.

The difference now is that Miliband can produce what would normally be considered "left-of-centre" statements and carry the majority of the public with him. In effect, he has harnessed dissatisfaction with the status quo, occupied a new political space and labelled it the centre ground. This is what Thatcher achieved from the late 1970s: she used the public mood against what were perceived to be powerful trade unions holding the country to ransom as a platform to advance her policy agenda.

Miliband has adopted a similar strategy. On phone hacking, he challenged powerful tabloid media organisations and called for an enquiry. On intervening in Syria, he recognised the unpopularity of the Iraq war and opposed President Obama. The latest policy - a pledge to ban the "non-dom" tax loophole - has captured the public's resurgent antipathy towards unfairness. Just as Thatcher's ideology swept Britain from the 1980's and beyond, Miliband's could through to the 2030s. His is the new populism.

The latest shift in public values is the largest for thirty years and the window of opportunity has opened to manifest this in a new government. The planets may have aligned for Ed Miliband, but it remains to be seen whether, on 7th May, the electorate will do the same for his party.