The election of a new leader of a national political party, especially one in opposition, is not often a matter of significance to wider issues of global security. The surprising victory of the 40-year-old Ed Miliband in the contest to lead Britain’s Labour Party may prove to be an exception.
The party experienced a painful electoral defeat in the general election of 6 May 2010, meaning that it faces at least several years out of government in which it must try to revive its ideas and fortunes. There are some compensations for the new leader: he has a fresh profile, and is untainted by the worst of the party’s decisions under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; after thirteen years in office the party’s loss was not as catastrophic as had been feared, obliging the Conservatives to create a coalition with the third-party Liberal Democrats in order to secure a parliamentary majority; and the forthcoming harsh programme of public-spending cuts will create immediate opportunities to build a challenge to the government’s agenda.
True, there is also small comfort for Labour here, in that much of its energies will be focused on seeking more protection for the poorer people in society whom the cuts will hit hardest, and more social and economic investment. This task will be made more difficult by the emerging orthodoxy that blames Labour’s own mismanagement for the current economic woes.
This very partial narrative omits the long-term roots of the crisis in the financial deregulation of the late 1980s (under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives), and even the more recent expansion of reckless financial instruments (credit-default swaps and collateralised debt obligations) whose outcome was the still-unfinished financial implosions of 2008-10.
Against this, Ed Miliband can develop a critique of the banking system, from the enormous debts it has created (which the public is being asked to carry) to the inequity it embodies (reflected in huge salaries and bonus-payments disproportionate to any social benefit).
Behind these shorter-term questions relating to the politics of the economic crisis lie a larger reality: that in the years until Britain’s next scheduled general election in May 2015, the main underlying global trends - deep socio-economic divisions and environmental constraints - will become even more significant and less unavoidable. This is a great challenge to all political leaders, but for the incoming leader of a bruised but still influential centre-left party it is a particular opportunity to integrate into its programme some of the truly innovative thinking that can help prepare the way for essential economic and social changes (see "Beyond 'liddism': towards real global security", 1 April 2010).
The new agenda
The argument that the second decade of the 21st century will be crucial in making the transition to a sustainable world system has been a persistent theme of this series of columns. The greatest long-term danger is climate change, where the evidence of dangerous acceleration is unquestionable. The George W Bush administration represents a lost decade here, the summit at Copenhagen in December 2009 failed to re-establish momentum, and big-energy interests and their media supporters are determined to maintain the status quo (see Oyvind Paasche, "After climategate: forward to reality", 14 July 2010).
The full disastrous impact of unbridled climate change may still be two decades or more away, meaning that action to move towards an ultra-low-carbon economy has to be implemented well before 2020. This is more than making a specific transition, momentous as that alone will be: it has to be part of a much larger process of fundamental economic reform which delivers greater equity and emancipation without economic growth as conventionally understood (see Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, Earthscan, 2009).
The ingredients of the transformation include recognition of peak oil, loss of biodiversity and other environmental limits as part of the overall predicament of a globally constrained ecosystem affected by an expanding human population whose dominant economic model is contributing to its self-destruction.
This larger reality may appear far removed from Ed Miliband’s domestic political agenda. But it is inexorable. Some innovative ideas are being developed to counter it, by (among others) the New Economics Foundation and the Oxford Research Group. But a key element in their spreading influence will be their integration into the agendas of serious political leaders.
The fresh paradigm
This is where Ed Miliband has a singular opportunity. He has at least until 2012 before the next Britain-wide election begins to dominate debate (unless a political crisis leads to the collapse of the coalition before then). That period gives him and his team - even as they are obliged to concentrate on immediate political issues - the space to support, encourage and facilitate some really new thinking.
Much of this contribution would be indirect. But its great potential value will be enhanced if it is fused with persistent and open campaigning on issues of sustainability and equity. In the short term this will neither win nor lose votes, but in the longer term - over a three-to-five-year timescale, thus reaching up to the election - there is every chance that it will be seen as ever more prescient, accepted by and even attractive to voters. For it is very probable that by around 2014 there will be a general recognition of the massive dangers stemming from the impact of the current economic system on the biosphere, especially in terms of climate change.
In that event, a political team that sets out systematically to encourage radical and progressive analysis on global security will be one of the world’s foremost political parties in its ability to provide the kind of leadership required for the next generation.
It is hard to overestimate the scale of the response needed to the evolving global predicament. This certainly involves more than politics of a party or establishment kind: activists and campaigners of every sort, forward-looking think-tanks, and those few university centres that are not intellectually constricted will also make a huge contribution (see “Climate protest: rock the state, save the planet”, 29 April 2010).
But serious and focused political leadership - with a capability that has rarely been evident - is also required. Ed Miliband’s potential in this respect is untested, but his record at Copenhagen was strong and the conduct of his campaign for the leadership reveals qualities of determination and risk-taking that have caught most analysts by surprise.
His greatest advantage, now, is the time and space to develop a fresh political paradigm. If he and his advisers use that well, then the results could be surprising. Britain is a small post-imperial country with barely 1% of the world’s population; but it has a distinct range of useful connections (European, Atlantic and Commonwealth, as well as membership of the United Nations Security Council) that together give it more leverage than most.
Ed Miliband has the time to construct a model of state action founded on an understanding of sustainable global security that meets 21st-century needs. The next two years will show how far he and his party can travel in this vital direction.