Johann Hari: Ed, prepare for the fight of your life

The claim that he will 'abandon the middle-class' is the polar opposite of the truth. His politics are about knowing who the real middle-class are, and what they need

Share
Related Topics

Ed Miliband is being hit by a tsunami of lies and smears that is going to try to wash him away every day he leads the Labour Party. It happens to anybody who tries – however mildly and modestly, as he does – to take on the vested interests of the super-rich in defence of the rest of the population. If his message succeeds with the public, it will only get worse.

An hour after he was elected, I saw a neat metaphor for the sudden transition from a (literally) fraternal Labour leadership election to the aggression of national politics. Miliband walked out of the Midland Hotel and tried to stride to a meeting of his celebrating campaign team. Suddenly a swarm of camera crews kettled him in the street, yelling questions and making it impossible for him to move. His sweet young press team looked a little thrown, and asked the camera crews to let him pass. The camera crews shoved them aside and spat: "Fuck you." Those two words summarize his press coverage so far.

Ed Miliband's analysis of where Labour went wrong, and how to put it right, is broadly correct. The right-wing press, and many Blairites, keep claiming he will "abandon the middle class". This is the polar opposite of the truth. His politics are about understanding who Britain's real middle class are, and what they need. The median wage in Britain last year was £20,800. If you take home more than £40,000 a year, you are in the richest 10 per cent.

This, the real middle of British society, is stressed and close to panic. They can't get bank loans for their small businesses. They are worried they'll be made redundant, or their employer will go bust. They are working twice as hard just to stand still, so they hardly see their kids. They know when they grow up their children won't get mortgages, and won't get a university education without crippling debt. They are in debt themselves. They are incredibly vulnerable to the double-dip recession the Coalition's policies are making more likely, and to the looming hammer-blow to public services they can't afford to opt out of. The polls show the people they blame most for doing all this to them are the bankers and the super-rich. They're right.

The idea that Labour's response to all this should have been to continue to enthusiastically cosset the interests of the rich, and ignore the public rage, is bizarre. Yet this is the position of the defeated Blairites. I went to the Progress rally, which had morphed into a wake for David Miliband and a Madame Tussauds of unmodern "modernisers". More than a dozen speakers stood up and directed their anger solely in one direction – towards welfare recipients and immigrants. Now, I too believe welfare recipients should be required to work (and we should create jobs for them if there are none). I too believe that when immigration is too high, it depresses the wages of people at the bottom of society. These are real issues. But they are literally all the Blairites have left to talk about, in the nastiest possible tone.

Not a single other policy area, or thought, or philosophy, was mentioned. Not one. The idea of agreeing with the public and directing anger upwards to the people who actually caused this crisis was mentioned only to warn that this would be "irresponsible" and "threatening".

David Miliband's snapping at Harriet Harman underscored why the party made the right choice. He was furious at her for clapping a repudiation of the Iraq war, because she voted for it at the time. Think about what that reveals.

He thinks once you have taken a public position, it is disgusting to change it – no matter how catastrophic it turned out to be. (A million deaths in the name of Weapons of Mass Destruction that didn't exist is a catastrophe by any standard.) Imagine if he had been leading Labour with that view for the next four years. And, please, spare me the weepy political obituaries. This is a man who, as Foreign Secretary, fought hard to cover up MI5's role in the torture of British residents abroad. I'll save my tears for the people who were attacked with drills and electric cattle prods, while he scrambled to keep it classified.

Ed is right to judge that the mood of Middle England is much more receptive to populist proposals than to Blairite sucking-up to the super-rich or Cameroon whipping of the poor. He's already proposed some good ideas. He wants to pressure companies through the tax system to pay a living wage, a third higher than the minimum wage. He wants to abolish student debt and replace it with a graduate tax paid only when you are wealthy enough to do it.

Some other excellent proposals are bubbling up from the people around him. The Labour MP David Lammy has proposed a Land Tax as a way of making the wealthy pay a much fairer share. Land inequality is vastly higher even than income inequality. Today, 0.6 per cent of the British population owns 69 per cent of the land – and they are mostly the same families who owned it in the 19th century. Just 103 people own 30 per cent of the country.

This isn't productive wealth: it's overwhelmingly unearned and useless, so there is no reduction in economic activity if we go after it. And it can't be moved abroad. A rich Brit can flit to Monaco for long enough to avoid taxes, but he can't take the great lumps of the English countryside that he owns with him. Here's a popular way to pay to protect the universal welfare state so badly needed by Middle England.But if Miliband is serious about reducing inequality, he will incur the wrath of the super-rich and their winged monkeys who dominate our media. This isn't going to be a seminar: it's going to be a knife fight. They won't fight him on the issues, where his positions are broadly popular. They will simply try to make him look ridiculous or malign through distortion. Yet the print media in particular – by far the most biased source of news – isn't the force it was, and it's easier than ever to communicate over their heads. He will, however, have to show much stricter discipline in communicating a clear message about the "squeezed middle" than he has in his rambling interviews over the past week.

On the deficit, he needs to be Ballsy – in both senses. The right claims that in order to be "credible", he needs to commit to a strict programme of deficit-slashing. But everything we have learned from the last Great Depression tells us that, if things get worse, the only way out of mass unemployment will be a big fiscal jump-start to the economy, funded by taking out more government debt in the short term. He mustn't rule out being Franklin Roosevelt and instead commit to being Herbert Hoover, just to appease the very people whose macho platitudes caused this funk in the first place.

Ed Miliband is going to face an extremely difficult fight against the vested interests – and to get through it, he should think back to a figure from his childhood. No, not his father, the revolutionary Ralph Miliband. Ed used to skive off from dinners with him and other socialist thinkers to watch Dallas. He's going to need some of the granite spirit of J R Ewing. When his control of Ewing Oil was threatened, J R growled to his wife Sue Ellen: "Anything worth having is worth fighting for – all the way." Miliband's policies are worth having. But he is going to have to fight for them – all the way.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Army reservist Corporal James Dunsby  

Whether it’s in the City, the Army or at school, this ritual sadism has to stop

Chris Blackhurst
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name on Monday  

'I'm the happiest I've been for a long time and I finally know where I fit': Here's why role models matter for trans kids

Susie Green
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific