Ed Miliband MP’s speech to Open Labour Conference 2017



It’s great to be here at Open Labour.

And today I want to talk about what has always been our task—which is how we shape the political moment we are in and build a progressive future and what open Labour’s role can be.

It has been hard times in the last two years for the Left in Britain and indeed for our country.

The general election defeat of 2015, Brexit, Trump.

I’ve had my share of low moments in that time too.

Many real and poignant, because I so hate what the Tories are doing to our country.

As all of you do.

There have been some even lower moments too.

Like when I got on an aeroplane a couple of months after the election and the stewardess recognised me.

I thought its good to be remembered.

She beamed at me and said “So good to have you with us Mr Clegg”.

Open Labour’s Purpose

But my point in acknowledging hard times is to also to explain what should sustain us and sustains me.

I look at our country and the world and I see something more important, more enduring and more powerful, even through the gloom.

And that is the the values we stand for and the values that Open Labour stands for.

That’s why I am here on a Saturday afternoon.

That is I think why we are all here.

We see a deeply unequal, divided and unfair country and we are determined to change it. And whatever the hard times, we know we can.

We see a country where more than ever, people’s life chances, and the lives they lead are determined by the postcode they are born into.

And we are determined to change it. And whatever the hard times, we know we can.

We see our NHS, our care for the elderly in peril–=and we are determined to change it. And whatever the hard times, we know we can.

We are appalled that we live in a world where the top 6 richest men own as much of the wealth as the 3 billion poorest people in it. And we are determined to change it and we know whatever the hard times we can.

We fear for the planet we will pass on to our children and grandchildren as we see the reality of climate change becoming ever more apparent.

We are determined to change it and whatever the hard times, we know we can.

And we see the power, the allure and the grotesque falsity of the appeal of right-wing populism which seeks to blame the other and we are determined to fight it, to resist it and to change it.

And we know we can.

This is who we are and this is why we are here.

We are not fatalists, we are not pessimists, we are optimists.

That for me is the point of Open Labour.

Rooted in the world as it is not the world as we would wish it to be.

But determined to engage with it, shape it and transform it to become the more equal, fair society that brought us into the Labour Party.

In the words of Neil Kinnock “We have a dream but we are not dreamers”.

We understand that the path to a fairer society is rocky, it is winding, it is uncertain, but there is always a path.

It is this spirit of transformation that I come here to honour, to uphold and I hope Open Labour will take forward.

The World As It Is

And what we have to do is what we have always done and apply this politics of transformation to the circumstances of our time.

So what are they?

Even before Brexit, the challenges facing Left parties are enormous.

The breaking down of old identities, based on work, union, and tradition which have tied many of our supporters to us.

Globalisation and the sweeping economic and cultural change it is bringing for communities.

The transformation of work, a foundation for us a party, which has made it more insecure, uncertain and tenuous and will do so even more in the future.

The greater scepticism about the centralised state and its ability to deliver.

A sense that our politics is broken and in disrepute.

When you live through this historical disruption, sometimes it is harder to see it.

But we should step back and see it for what it is.

And the major rethinking that it calls for.

We can see these challenges playing out across the developed world.

But for us today in Britain, uniquely, they are in the background not the foreground.

Because there is a more immediate issue that is testing to the limit who we are and what we stand for and that is Brexit.

And if Open Labour is pledged to deal with the realities of the world as it is not as we would wish it to be, it has to grapple with this—and the fallout from the referendum.

We can’t ignore an event that will reshape our economy, our society and our place in the world more fundamentally than for at least 40 years.

That challenges our politics and who and what we stand for in a fundamental way.


Here is my reality as a local MP.

I represent a constituency that voted by 70-30 to Leave, one of the highest in the country.

I still don’t think that the voices of those who voted to leave are being properly heard or understood.

Immigration mattered a lot in that vote, probably more than any other issue.

But the most important driver of Brexit wasn’t a policy question.

It was a sentiment, an emotion, a feeling.

It was about the desire for a new beginning.

A sense in fact of hope, of the potential for transformation.

Including among people who have never voted before, including people who didn’t vote for me —or vote at all—in 2015.

If I heard it once, I have heard it a hundred times, that desire for change.

And when we hear it this way, and hear it we must, we realise that the challenges that I said were in the background—around class, work, globalisation, the state, politics,–are not somehow separate from Brexit but were a fundamental cause of it.

And when we hear it this way as we must I think it should make us far more reticent as too many Remainers seem to do to dismiss the Leave vote as one of nativism or racism.

In my constituency, people feel the pain of low wage, insecure work today compared to mining jobs that were hard, dangerous but well paid and regarded.

They have a huge sense of doubt about the future for their kids.

They have well merited scepticism that anyone in politics has real—or big enough answers.

And a weariness about a country that doesn’t seem to work for them.

Its why I truly believe that many of the roots of Brexit lie in a failed free market, economic model which has ill-served so many of my constituents.

This is my truth, the reality as I see it as a constituency MP.

The Other Reality

Of course, though on the other side, we all know there is another truth in the aftermath of this referendum.

The feelings of the Remainers about what has been lost.

The fears about whether there is a place for the 48% today in Britain.

The pain of young people who voted Remain and feel their futures have been snatched away.

The fears of citizens from other European countries about what happens to them.

The fears about what happens to our economy and indeed jobs.

I hear these truths too. And I do not deny or underestimate them.

In fact, I profoundly believe that our politics must be about understanding both of these truths.

Because both represent reality.

The Leave voters desperate for a new beginning; the Remain voters now fearing deeply for the future.

Labour’s Task

And that takes me to our task.

I think there is only one future for Labour.

And that it is to speak –for a politics of transformation—that can bridge the divide.

My starting point is that we can’t wish away the referendum result.

Think about our politics: we are the people who want to build a project that unites the country, we are the people who want to rebuild faith in politics.

Then ask yourself whether we can really do that by being the people who are covertly or overtly, on a mission to overturn the result.

It was in large part, people’s dissatisfaction with politics that drove the Brexit vote, so how can we possibly hope to rebuild that faith if our starting point is to seek to ignore how people have voted?

People make a comparison with a general election.

Of course, when we lose an election, as I did, we come back to fight again.

But the key thing is that first we implement the result in good faith.

This referendum had a particular character which we cannot deny.

We told people it was a one-off vote to decide our European future, not advisory, or a prelude to a second vote or contingent on what we thought of the campaign.

Of course people have a right to change their minds, but our task is, unless and until that happens, and there is no evidence of it yet, to seek to the best of our ability to implement the result.

Part of what I want to convince you of today is that it is too fatalistic, too defeatist, not in keeping with the traditions that Open Labour is trying to represent, to think a reactionary politics is therefore inevitable.

It would in many, many ways be easier to build the progressive politics I believe in if we were in the EU.

But a basic part of what we believe is we grapple with the world in all its imperfections.

Think about our greatest government—that of 1945.

They faced much worse economic circumstances than the ones we will face after Brexit —a country bankrupt, flattened by war.

Imagine if they had concluded that things were too difficult to build something better.

False optimism serves nobody but we can’t succumb to the idea that there is no better future we can create.

And I fear the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the choice is reversing the referendum versus hard, right wing Brexit, then right wing Brexit will most likely win.

And we know what that would look like: deregulation, fewer rights, corporate taxes slashed further, Britain as a Hong Kong of the North Sea.

It would be a grim irony if a referendum rooted in the failed free market model ended up producing a more extreme version of it.

That was not what people voted for.

But that is the risk if we leave the field clear to the Right.

The Way Forward

We owe it to people to give them an alternative.

We need over the coming months to answer the question in our terms of the new economic, political and foreign policy settlement we need.

A new settlement that answers the call of change from those who voted Leave we heard in the referendum.

But also understands and answers the fears of people who voted to Remain.

So I agree with those who say  we must fight for a meaningful choice about the terms of Brexit, for tariff-free trade, membership of the customs union, co-operation on research and do everything we can to avoid hard Brexit.

And those who are deeply worried about the government’s strategy and prospectus are right.

We must hold them to account for it.

But people will not rally to our cause if this is all we do.

Limiting the damage from Brexit is not enough.

Damage limitation has never been enough for us.

When article 50 is triggered we have to shift gear.

We have to reclaim the politics of hope and transformation.

Let’s start by showing that we can answer the deep concerns about insecurity we heard in that referendum.

The government will introduce the the so –called Great Repeal Bill.

People have said we should use it to protect workers rights, but that isn’t nearly ambitious enough.

Any government worth its salt should be using  that bill too do away with zero-hours contracts ,tackle the lack of rights for the self employed, do more to tackle the gender pay gap.

Lets call the Brexiteers’ bluff.

They said they wanted  battery deal at work for people. Now is the chance to do it.

And lets go further.

Lets use some of the greater freedom we may have through state aids for an industrial policy that will provide proper help for the industries of the future.

As we change free movement, let’s shape a labour market and immigration policy which once and for all stops the ability of firms to exploit overseas labour to undercut wages.

As regional policy and spending comes back to the UK, lets have proper devolution of power and money to tackle the inequalities of place across our country

Its time to get out of a defensive crouch.

Its time to reclaim the politics of transformation,

And this is just some of what we should be doing.

Right across the board, we should be recognising what choices Brexit will force us to confront.

Let’s celebrate what the EU did for our environment, but lets resolve to be environmental leaders outside the EU.

EU environmental law should be floor on our ambitions not the ceiling.

Let’s shape a progressive trade agreement with the EU.

And lets defend the principle of an open, engaged, tolerant, Britain.

And take on the idea of a nasty, intolerant Britain post Brexit.

A Remainers said to be the other day she feared a racist country after Brexit.

I think that misunderstands why most people voted to Leave but it underestimates our capacity to shape the political debate.

Closing the drawbridge, shrinking from the world, is not inevitable.

We can and must continue to co-operate with Europe.

We must have mechanisms to do that.

We cannot and must not be forced into the arms of Donald Trump.

But we need to make the case for it.

And we need to do so not by looking as if we are trying to rerun the match we just played.

We need to move on from trying to replay history and start writing the future.

More That Unites Us

And we should do this on behalf of both Leavers and Remainers.

And understand this: Remainers and Leavers are not as different as they appear.

We meet today in the secondary school I went to in the constituency in which I still live in London, which voted 70% to Remain.

But I simply do not accept the idea that what divides them is greater than what unites them.

Working people in Holborn and St Pancras worry about the insecurity and uncertainty in their working lives, just like Doncaster north.

The parents of kids at Haverstock School here worry about their kids future, just like in Doncaster North.

Patients and citizens in both places. worry about our NHS and their Mums and Dads

In the words of Jo Cox, we have more in common than what divides us.

And we should never forget that and we should always seek to reach out to people beyond our circle.

This too is who we are.

There are lots of reasons to have a sense of despair.

The easiest thing in progressive politics is to give up

To conclude the task is hopeless.

But it isn’t.

There is always something to fight for and there is today, whatever the adversity.

The Right doesn’t have the answers to the inequality, division and problems that our societies face.

Our politics is needed now more than ever.

Gloom, pessimism and despair have never contributed to a single progressive advance.

Never built a single home, never lifted a single child out of poverty or changed a single life for the better.

We have to reclaim the politics of transformation.

We have to grapple with the world as it is.

And build something new.

Not because of false optimism but because of grounded hope.

It is what our predecessors have done.

We can do so again.


You may also like

Adopted position paper 2017-18 by Open Labour | 19.03.17 | In: Governance Following some intense democratic debate, Open Labour has adopted a position paper for 2017-18. The paper outlines our basic strategic and policy positions on... Read More
#OpenLabour17 – The Open Labour Panel by Open Labour | 16.03.17 | In: General Thanks to Open Labour member Hassan Hoque for recording the below session conversation. https://clyp.it/hu0z3t1u Ideas into action: building an open... Read More
Building Momentum for an Open Labour Party by Tom Miller | 16.12.15 | In: Comment By James Doran / @doran_j When I heard that Open Labour had been established, I was delighted. Why, though? I am involved with Momentum. Should I not see... Read More
Open Labour policies at heart of Labour transport plans by Tessa Milligan, Co-Chair | 11.04.24 | In: General, News A people-first economy is core to Open Labour’s political values, and we have long fought for basic services to be run for people, not profit. In our 2022... Read More