Books, Venue

UEA Live: Ed Miliband on Boris, beards, and big ideas

Rivalled only by the Scottish pirate-themed heavy metal band playing in the LCR, Ed Miliband held an audience in the largest lecture theatre on campus to discuss his new book Go Big: How to fix our world on Thursday 9th December.

Known by many as the leader of the Labour Party from 2010 to 2015, MP for Doncaster North since 2005, and Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change and Net Zero, Miliband joined UEA Political and Social Theory Professor Alan Finlayson for a remarkably candid conversation on a variety of topics including Boris, beards, and a multitude of big ideas.

To open, Finlayson enquired as to why Miliband decided to stay in politics after he lost his bid to become Prime Minister in 2015. “Couldn’t find another job”, he shrugged, immediately engaging the audience in laughter. At 45-years-old, Miliband said he didn’t want to leave politics as he felt he still had a part to play in influencing change. Jokingly, he recounted going from discussing the phone call he’d have with Barack Obama if he won the election, to being grateful to even receiving a call about his PPI insurance. Despite struggling to work out what he could do with his newfound freedom, he accredited his continuance in the political sphere to caring about the country and caring about change, saying “I felt I had more to say”.

Moving on to address the big ideas discussed in his book, Miliband questioned: “How can small solutions or incrementalism be the answer to the problems that we face?” He emphasised that he believes one of the most difficult things for politicians to do is to learn, as it’s seen as a weakness or admittance of failure. Though he argued politics doesn’t encourage a culture of learning, he presented how he was willing to change this on a personal level by saying: “I wasn’t bold enough in 2015… I was bold in my analysis, but I wasn’t bold enough in my solutions”.

Further reflecting on his time leading a political party, Miliband said the danger is that people doubt you have a personality. After losing the election, he describes posting the occasional funny tweet which received responses along the lines of “My god! He did have a personality after all. Where was this in 2015?” At this point, a chuckle arose at the front of the auditorium, to which he joked: “obviously somebody in this audience is the person who tweeted that. I know who you are!”

Finlayson asked about the gap between the small things he believes our current government talk about and the big ideas covered in Go Big. To this, Miliband expressed his dislike for current Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “it won’t surprise you to know that Johnson is not my cup of tea as a person at all. Or as a politician – where do you even begin?” He said that leadership has changed since 2015, in that they’re trying to speak to the moment, to “the sense of pain, dislocation, and discontent with the system we have”. When pressed on the nostalgia felt in and around labour for periods of electoral success resulting in some politicians wishing to recreate 1997, he said it was “definitely not enough”. According to Miliband, the “challengers are very different and bigger in my view. The politics is very different”.

Drawing upon a few concepts discussed within his book, Finlayson enquired as to his beliefs surrounding political change. “Political change doesn’t mainly come because nice politicians come along and make it happen. It comes along because of social and political pressure”, he said, acknowledging that while government is of the utmost importance, it isn’t enough on its own. Addressing those who feel powerless in our current political system he said: “People joining together do have power to change things, no matter how hard it might look”. After the 2015 electoral loss, he was persuaded to go on a five-day community organisation course which encouraged everyone to believe they have the power to compel politicians. Here, he paused, recounting how he grew a beard in his “post-leadership crisis”, before quickly gesturing to Finlayson who sports a long beard and said: “I’m not saying you grew your beard as part of a crisis… I should stop digging here”. But the main message he took from this course was that by forming relationships with people, you establish common interests with each other, and only then can you have the power to change things.

Finally, Finlayson pulled out one key concept he felt Miliband demonstrated a deep commitment to throughout the book – equality. “Yes” Miliband said, nodding emphatically, “[Equality] is what motivates my politics”. Throughout his early career, the thing he struggled with most was the sense that “severe inequality was like the weather, you couldn’t do that much about it”. He says politicians like Boris Johnson are mere opportunists who recognise people believe inequality is wrong and therefore wax lyrical about it for the sake of their own careers. In stark contrast, Miliband speaks on equality passionately, saying: “It isn’t just about measures of income or even measures of wealth, it’s also about people’s voice and people’s ability to affect change and have real power over the things that matter in their lives”.

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Dolly Carter

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