Of Keir Starmer’s notorious “U-turns”, as the Labour leader ruthlessly exorcises the twin spectres of “tax and spend” from his pre-election offering, one measure stands tall above the rest. That is Labour’s watering down of its green prosperity plan, which, under axed plans, would have seen Starmer funnel £28 billion of capital investment into Britain’s green industries every year — or £140 billion in the course of a first Labour term.
Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves still traverse the narrowest of paths as they try to persuade the public that their economic plans are robust; and, even in 2021, some time before Liz Truss spurred the salience of spending commitments with a smash-and-grab round of fiscal loosening, Labour’s climate commitments were notably nonconformist.
Announcing the policy at Labour conference, Reeves paraded herself before the party faithful as the “first green chancellor”-in-wait. But in June this year, Reeves, now tasked with landing the climate climbdown, spearheaded the leadership’s ruthless rearguard action on the measure lest Labour be tarred with the brush of Trussite fiscal profligacy. A future Labour government, we were informed, will “ramp up” to the now-totemic £28 billion figure.
Zoom out and it is no secret that the long list of Labour U-turns has implicated, and often blindsided, shadow cabinet ministers. Keir Starmer’s decision to keep the two-child benefit cap, for example, contradicted shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth’s stated position on the “heinous” policy. The recent about-turn on some workers’ rights provisions, briefed to the FT, plundered the policy laboratory of Angela Rayner, Starmer’s elected deputy who also serves as the shadow secretary of state for the future of work.
In this way, the watering down of the ambition of the green prosperity fund was interpreted universally as a blow to Ed Miliband, former Labour leader, part-time podcaster and Starmer’s climate change and net zero spokesperson.
Reeves insisted at the time that she and Miliband, who has championed an economic interventionist agenda during Starmer’s tenure as leader, including as shadow business secretary, were “on the same page” when it came to fiscal stability and the need to reassure markets. But on taking to Twitter that same day, Miliband seemed rather less concerned with reassuring financiers than he was his fellow party environmentalists.
He was steely: “Some people don’t want Britain to borrow to invest in the green economy. They want us to back down. But Keir, Rachel and I will never let that happen. Britain needs this £28bn-a-year plan, and that is what we are committed to”.
He later told the BBC: “Some people in the Conservative party say we should abandon our plan. We are a hundred per cent saying today we are not abandoning our plan. We are sticking with it and we’re showing how we’re going to deliver it.”
Miliband at the margins
The updated approach to the green prosperity plan flowed from well over a year of feverish speculation that Miliband was being sidelined and marginalised by the Labour leadership.
In the very conference season that saw Reeves commit to the flagship green project, Miliband was accused of “freelancing” by leader’s office insiders after he passionately recommitted the party to public ownership of energy. A public snub from Starmer followed; and, viewed in full, the episode appears to have been the trigger for the semi-regular briefings to journalists that relations between offices are sour.
Today, such rumours rumble on unabated as part of the broader discussions and ground-laying which precede Starmer’s much-anticipated pre-election reshuffle. The assumed schedule for Starmer’s top team rejig is that it would have to come sometime ahead of Labour conference in October to allow ministers to bed into their new roles before introducing themselves to the party. Miliband is constantly sounded out as someone who may have to make way.
Miliband has been moved before, of course. As part of Starmer’s last reshuffle in November 2021, he lost his responsibility for the business portfolio to Jonathan Reynolds, who has focussed perhaps more on prawn cocktails than his predecessor might have done in the role. As the former leader was shunted into the new climate change and net zero brief, Starmer heralded Miliband as “a powerful, internationally well-respected voice on the issue”.
But it was not lost on many that, in losing his business brief, Miliband became a shadow cabinet minister without a cabinet minister to shadow. Miliband’s was a liminal existence, therefore, until Sunak conducted his own mini-reshuffle in February of this year in which created the department for new energy security and net zero and charged Grant Shapps with leading it.
Miliband, in all biggest winner of the February Rishuffle, had found in Shapps a worthy sparring partner.
Labour’s ‘soft left’ underbelly?
It is also worth outlining that Miliband’s influence extends far beyond his brief and the House of Commons chamber. Having ambulated the path from party future to elder statesman, an intervening period of political success notwithstanding, Miliband has earned the right to an audience. Seizing on this fact in late 2021, the shadow cabinet minister published a book entitled GO BIG: How To Fix Our World. Perhaps crucially, Miliband had already put pen to paper on his ode to radicalism by the time Starmer triggered his unlikely political renaissance with a return to frontbench responsibilities.
It hardly needs to be said that the phrase “Go Big” does not quite capture the tone and substance of Starmerism. Nor does the chapter entitled “That Which Makes Life Worthwhile”, in which the former Labour leader laments that increasing GDP has been the overriding goal of public policy. (Mission number one of Starmer’s five missions, of course, commits Labour in power to “securing the highest sustained growth in the G7”).
Promoting his book, Miliband placed his finger on a value-action gap at the heart of his 2015 manifesto. He told the Guardian: “I was bold in my analysis [as leader], but I felt at the time that I wasn’t bold in my solutions. And since then, I have felt that the prescriptions didn’t meet the analysis”. The underlying message was thus: if Miliband could do it all again, the “EdStone” would be built some feet tall to allow room for riskier commandments.
It is, therefore, perhaps little surprise that Miliband continues to be the object of Starmer allies’ factional antipathy. Over two years, intermittent pressure has accumulated considerable column inches — the result of which is in essence a full-blown campaign against the former leader, more and more seen as the elephant across the shadow cabinet table by Starmer allies.
Indeed, prompted by a Miliband-led presentation, the Labour leader was reported to have told his shadow cabinet colleagues in July that he hates “tree huggers” and was only interested in his party’s green energy plan because of its implications for jobs and growth. Party sources quickly denied the outburst, but the very existence of the briefing — whether borne of truth or fabrication — underlines that some Labour insiders want to confect media competition between leaders past and present.
An upcoming reshuffle, it is therefore supposed, would allow Starmer to dispose of his ancien-régime-but-one.
It is an increasingly common refrain that Starmer’s war on his party is unfinished and that a future reshuffle will pivot against Labour’s “soft left” elements. In this way, ditching Miliband and moving the former leader out of his coveted climate change brief would fortify the ideological foundations of Starmerism and signal that the current leader is clutching his Ming Vase ever-tighter ahead of an election campaign.
There would be policy implications too — potentially surrounding plans for no new oil and gas drilling in the North sea, another much-criticised policy said to flow from Miliband’s pen. Moreover, if Starmer fears future attacks that Labour is the “political wing of Just Stop Oil”, excommunicating the individual who first courted Dale Vince, a JSO and Labour funder who regards Miliband as his “favourite politician”, would neutralise the point significantly.
There could also be justifications for this move beyond the mere ideological. For Miliband is the most unpopular member of the shadow cabinet according to YouGov’s likability ratings, suggesting he holds serious baggage as a visible former leader. Starmer’s intra-party critics have also reportedly sounded out Miliband as the frontman for a coup — something the shadow secretary of state dismissed as “nuts” but which perhaps underlines his position as de facto “soft left” factional leader in Labour’s top team.
Conversely, were Starmer to keep Miliband — a proposition far beyond the pale given his popularity in the parliamentary party, idolisation among young and green voters and serious experience of government, it would reignite the prospect that the leader could well go big before an election.
Starmer is also steadfast in his commitment to GB Energy, his proposed publicly-owned clean energy generation company, now sold as the saviour of the 1707 Anglo-Scottish Union. The policy, more and more a favourite of Starmer’s, is also attributed to Miliband’s consummate climate lobbying.
So is Miliband a serious Labour intellectual or symbolic of the party’s electorally exposed soft left underbelly? Such is the Ed Miliband question Starmer must soon answer. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the lack of an obvious to this question may be informing Starmer’s late reshuffle schedule.
Step back and the Miliband question is significant because it gets to the crux of Starmer’s central conundrum: the assumed trade-off between radicalism and fiscal prudence — viewed more and more as necessary to electoral success.
What may in the end prove crucial is that, in pursuit of this latter goal Starmer is running out of policies, or U-turns, through which he might deliberately signal his seriousness. Further strategical sacrifices, therefore, may have to come in the form of personnel. And the obvious candidate to be presented upon the altar, unfortunately for the party’s environmentalists, is Starmer’s fratricidal forebear: “Red Ed” Miliband.
In all, to paraphrase the Times article which preceded Starmer’s decision to water down the green prosperity plan: if the Labour leader is willing to embrace Miliband and escort him all the way into a bespoke climate change ministry after an election campaign, then our fundamental assumptions of what Starmer’s politics are may just have to change.
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Picture from the Labour party’s Flickr account.