This morning, from the steps of Downing Street, the new Prime Minister David Miliband channelled the spirit of Winston Churchill, saying: “just as we did 80 years ago, Britain today stands alone in Europe as a beacon of hope for liberal democracy.”
The election of Miliband’s Progressive Alliance is widely seen as a response to the volatility and divisions in European politics since the Eurozone semi-collapsed (going from 19 members to 9) in late 2016. Unable to recover from the damage to her personal credibility, Chancellor Merkel stood down in the run-up to the German federal elections of 2017, since when Europe has lost all semblance of cohesiveness and moral leadership. Today the continent is divided – the north governed by anti-immigrant, far right Know Nothings; the south by left-wing extremists whose policies in government have only worsened the economic and fiscal crises that got them elected in the first place. Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia has taken advantage of Europe’s disunity to further extend his sphere of influence – practically to the German border.
Miliband’s own return to British politics came in 2017, shortly after the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU in a national referendum. At the time he described the result as a “ shameful backward step in an age when we face so many challenges that transcend national borders” and “an abdication of responsibility.” But his Party has not pledged to open talks with Brussels about rejoining the Union.
The former foreign secretary has won plaudits from most quarters for his measured, well-informed and compassionate response to the ongoing migrant crisis (in this respect, his stint as head of the International Rescue Committee turned out to be excellent preparation for his return to politics).
Since 2015, more than 8 million people, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa, have made their way to Europe’s borders seeking refuge from civil wars, terrorist regimes and climate change-induced droughts in their homelands. Britain has by and large shouldered its fair share of the burden, accepting almost 800,000 refugees over the course of the parliament (the numbers have in fact gone up since leaving the EU). But the government has done little to try to integrate the new arrivals, leading to an increasing ghettoisation of many major cities. Miliband promised to address “both the causes and symptoms” of the continuing refugee crisis and to move beyond the previous government’s reliance on “short-term emergency measures”.
A significant portion of Miliband’s speech was dedicated to economic policy. He said that “when the 2018 stock market crash came, we discovered that 10 years on from the previous crisis we were no better prepared to deal with a meltdown in the financial system. UK plc was still over-reliant on the City of London to keep it afloat. We were kidding ourselves to think we had addressed the underlying issues that caused the 2008 crisis. We can’t afford to make the same mistakes again. This time we really must address the over-financialisation of the UK economy.”
He went on to announce that the former Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, who joined the Progressives after he was defeated by Theresa May in last year’s leadership battle, would be returning to Number 11 Downing Street. The move will raise eyebrows with some of the Alliance’s supporters, but Miliband defended the decision saying: “for much of the last 10 years, George has been a champion for British industry and one of the few people in British politics to recognise the need to seriously re-balance our economy, creating regional powerhouses that can compete for talent and investment with the capital.”
Sources at Westminster have suggested that Osborne was only asked to join the government because Miliband couldn’t persuade any of his more left-wing colleagues to accept a role which is widely considered a “poisoned chalice”.
As readers will remember, the 2018 crash triggered a summer of mass protests on the streets of London and other major cities, with some rioting and looting around the fringes. Commentators likened the mood to the revolutionary spirit that had existed fifty years earlier in 1968. Winston Smith, a 30-year-old Cambridge-educated spokesman for the revived Occupy movement summed up the anger of many in an interview that went viral online: “my generation graduated in the middle of a recession caused by bankers. We struggled to find jobs that paid a living wage. Eventually most of us found something crappy and unfulfilling to do and we kept our heads down because we were told we should be grateful to have a job at all. We resigned ourselves to our fate as generation rent, shut out of the property market by the insane rise in house prices. Then, just as we’re on the brink of being able to become homeowners, our jobs disappear overnight, our hard-earned savings are made worthless and the banks tell us you can only have a mortgage if you can put up a 50% deposit. Enough is enough. We’re fed up of living in a world where our dreams get smashed again and again because of the greed and short-sightedness of the people in power.”
Throughout the election campaign, the Progressive Alliance has achieved a remarkable rhetorical balancing act in channelling the anger of those like Smith who blame the bankers for what happened in 2018, whilst at the same time winning supporters in what’s left of the once mighty City of London. In particular, the constant reference, by Miliband and his team, to the faltering of the Chinese economy as the cause of the 2018 crash has set them apart from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, whose rhetoric towards the bankers has been much more accusatory.
Miliband also made reference to the “fiscal black hole” that the new Chancellor will be tasked with filling. Since the 2018 crash, the UK’s deficit has once again spiralled out of control. Despite the decision not to bail out the banks – to many people’s surprise, the Cameron government opted for the more limited intervention of guaranteeing individual savings up to £50,000 – the sharp decline in economic output, which caused a dip in tax receipts and a rise in the welfare bill, has done just as much damage to the government’s balance sheet as the previous crash did.
Even before 2018, corporate tax receipts had been in freefall for a number of years: the continued rise of the so-called “sharing economy” and online retailers were making a mockery of the system. A Daily Mail headline from January 2018 (three months before the crash) caught the essence of this unfolding crisis: “Amazon, Uber and Airbnb: pay your taxes or get out!” Needless to say, all three companies ignored the warning.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how fresh the Gazprom Arctic Oil Spill still is in many people’s minds – much of the east coast of Scotland is still in clean-up mode – climate change was another major theme of Miliband’s speech. He promised – as with the migrant issue – to tackle the problem holistically: “yes, we must invest urgently in flood defences so that we do not see a repeat of the destruction of homes across the country, from Somerset to Cumbria, that has happened over the last two years. And yes, we must revisit the rules pertaining to low emission zones in our major cities, in order to avoid a recurrence of last summer’s great smog, which hospitalised thousands of Londoners. But we must also reach out and seek to build international consensus and cooperation in the fight against climate change. We now know that the emission reduction targets set at Paris in 2015 are way too modest. This government is committed to working with business and with the wider international community to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by the end of the decade.”
The Prime Minister also promised to revisit the last parliament’s controversial decision to open a third runway at Heathrow. Critics have suggested that Miliband’s tough rhetoric on tackling climate change is merely a sop to the Green Party – the only party to officially form an electoral pact with the Alliance at the general election. But polls suggest that after recent events, his rhetoric is also popular amongst former Lib Dem and Labour voters frustrated by their parties’ failure to see the urgency of political action on climate change.
Regardless of the political consensus, Miliband will face a serious uphill battle in government if he is to deliver on his promise to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Experts are warning of an impending energy crisis due to delays in getting the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point operational and the previous government’s under-investment in renewables. The next few years may see a return to the blackouts and three-day weeks of the 1970s unless the government is able to import more electricity from its neighbours. Given the diplomatic isolation of recent years, just keeping the lights on is going to be a tough hurdle to negotiate.
The speech finished with a promise to invest in Britain’s long-term future. Those with a long memory have suggested there was even a hint of Miliband’s former mentor – Tony Blair, who has maintained his vow of silence throughout the election campaign – in his impassioned rhetoric about the importance of education. Among the more eye-catching commitments the Prime Minister made was a reiteration of his campaign pledge to introduce 10,000 miles of lanes for driverless cars nationwide by 2025 – a pledge that was memorably described by Jeremy Clarkson as “fucking bonkers.”
Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, the Progressive Alliance’s leader in Scotland, Douglas Alexander, told an audience of party members that he had never “felt prouder to be Scottish than I do today. After more than ten years of SNP dominance and two divisive referendum campaigns, today the voice of the real Scottish majority has been heard. For as long as many of us can remember, the SNP has tried to convince us that we as a people are angry and resentful; that we want to destroy our centuries-old Union for the sake of macho nationalism. This election has been about the heart and soul of our great nation and I for one am proud that we’ve shown that the SNP are wrong about Scotland’s true character. We want to help shape a Progressive future for the whole of Britain.” The Progressive Alliance won 38 of Scotland’s 59 seats; the SNP won just 16.
A brief history of the Progressive Alliance
The election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London in 2016 masks what is otherwise a disastrous round of local and regional elections for Labour. The failure to make progress in the country as a whole and Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to resign – arguing that 9 months into his leadership, the work of turning around Labour’s electoral prospects is only just getting underway – leads to a mass secession of the Labour right. Yvette Cooper becomes the Progressive Alliance’s first leader and initially the new party attracts just a handful of Lib Dems led by former deputy PM Nick Clegg, frustrated by their own party’s lack of progress under Tim Farron.
In 2017, David Miliband returns to UK politics following Britain’s EU exit. He joins the Alliance and is promptly made foreign affairs spokesman. Cooper’s performance as leader is widely regarded as underwhelming and eventually, following her failure to capitalise on the crash of 2018 to make headway in the polls, she succumbs to media pressure to make way for the more “prime ministerial” Miliband.
Meanwhile, the EU referendum puts a significant strain on the Conservative Party with a handful of MPs defecting to UKIP. Unimpressed by the concessions Cameron has been able to win in the years leading up to the referendum, the country votes to leave the EU by a narrow margin. Despite this blow, Cameron staggers on until he stands down in 2019, in order to allow his successor to make their mark before the 2020 election. Theresa May ends up triumphant after a hard-fought four-way contest in which Osborne, Jeremy Hunt and Liz Truss split the moderate vote, while May is carried to victory by the hard right. Osborne and Truss subsequently join the Alliance, followed by a handful of other Tory modernisers.
And in Scotland, the SNP, having already wiped out all but one of Labour’s Scottish MPs in 2015, strike a further devastating blow in 2016 by reducing Labour’s MSPs from 37 to a rump of just 16. Riding on a wave of hubris, Nicola Sturgeon demands another referendum on Scottish independence, which is duly held in 2019, just five years after the previous one. Having failed to keep Britain in Europe, David Cameron makes it his mission to ensure the Union stays in tact, launching a 2-year long charm offensive directed at the Scottish people coupled with a 2-year long smear campaign targeted at the SNP. The result is that Scotland rejects independence in 2019 by a significantly higher margin than it did in 2014. The subsequent disintegration of the SNP has been almost as rapid as its rise was five years ago.
With Labour, Lib Dems and SNP all reduced to fringe parties and the Conservatives lurching to the right under Theresa May, the centre ground is left clear for Miliband’s Progressive Alliance – a coalition dominated by ex-Labour modernisers, supported by a handful of One Nation Tories, disgruntled former Lib Dems and Greens. At the 2020 election, the Alliance wins 333 seats, to the Conservatives’ 238 and Labour’s 45.