Ed Miliband is right: it’s people and not politicians who change the world
- Credit: Jenny Smith Photography
Remember Ed Miliband? The slightly awkward London socialist who, if things had gone slightly differently six years ago, could have been our prime minister?
Recently I had the privilege of hearing “Red Ed” at a fantastic UEA Live event in conversation with politics professor Alan Finlayson, and he said something I’ve been thinking about since.
The discussion was part of Miliband’s “Go Big: How to fix the world” book tour. He referred to the 322-page tract as a product of soul-searching and self-reflection: the rebuttal to his catastrophic election defeat to the man responsible for Brexit.
Ultimately, Miliband’s book is about the “big ideas” offering radical solutions to endemic societal problems.
His main bugbears are poverty, inequality and the fact your Average Joe feels completely excluded from, and disenchanted with, the prevailing political establishment.
I’m sure most of us would agree. And if we didn’t before the pandemic, we certainly do now.
To quote an increasingly popular cliché, piles of evidence showing there’s been “one rule for them and another rule for us” has quashed any trust some voters had in this current government.
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But the most interesting thing about the MP for Doncaster North’s new outlook does not lie in his obvious assessment of the social and economic evils threatening communities nationwide.
Instead, it’s the way we fix them.
Despite making no pretences throughout the event that he thought the best thing for the country is a Labour government, and that what is currently happening in Downing Street amounts to a pilfering of the left-wing economic policies he himself propounded years ago, he made it clear, somewhat surprisingly, that it doesn’t really matter who is in charge.
In fact, in contrast to what MPs want us to believe, Miliband claimed that what really makes a difference is the courageous collective actions and ingenious ideas drummed-up by normal people and the movements they inspire.
For the most part, it has nothing to do with Westminster and everything to do with pressure from below.
The pivotal moment in his adoption of this worldview, he said, was the immediate aftermath of his 2015 defeat, where he attended a community organising course (and grew a beard).
During this, he was persuaded that people alone have the power to compel the government to make changes, and that opposition MPs can in turn use their position to help constituents achieve those ends.
He gave an excellent example of this: young people in Cardiff successfully campaigning for a Halal Nando’s.
When delivering the chain's HQ a letter and sending them a petition didn’t work, they planned to run from Cardiff to their nearest Halal Nando’s restaurant 20 miles away in chicken costumes.
But before needing to resort to this, Nando’s responded and asked to meet with the leaders. To keep up the pressure, the group set up a table with empty plates outside Cardiff Bay’s Nando’s in chicken suits, persuading passers-by to boycott the restaurant.
Eventually their peaceful but persistent organising paid off. This meant local Muslims were able to enjoy a “cheeky” quarter-chicken without having to take a ludicrous detour.
Here in Norwich, we’ve got plenty of groups working through community organising to achieve change. ACORN, which helps tenants hold landlords to account, is one such community union the EDP has written about on a number of occasions.
But more broadly, if you live in the city centre, you’ll probably struggle to think of a Saturday gone-by in recent months where there hasn’t been at least one organisation marching on city hall and making a lot of noise in the process.
Regardless of what you think of Miliband’s policies, today’s political environment shows his sentiment is more relevant than ever.
In a government bubble where hosting lockdown parties, taking on second or even third jobs and refusing to feed disadvantaged families during the school holidays is somehow morally acceptable, it is not opposition parties that will force top-level U-turns.
It’s people, protests and the court of public opinion. And occasionally footballers.