This is the second interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, following Onora O’Neill. Back in November, Aveek Bhattacharya spoke to Marc Stears about his experiences in politics, focusing on his time as a close adviser to then leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband.
Prof Marc Stears is Director of the Sydney Policy Lab. Stears was Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford in 2010 when his university friend Ed Miliband was elected leader of the opposition Labour party. After a secondment to the think tank Institute for Public Policy Research, Stears left academia in 2012 to become Chief Speechwriter for Miliband. He was a co-author of the 2015 Labour election manifesto and a member of the party’s general election steering committee. In 2013, the Telegraph ranked him the UK’s eighth most influential left-winger. After Labour’s election defeat in 2015, Stears joined another British think tank, the New Economics Foundation, as Chief Executive, before his move to Australia in 2018.
Background and entry into politics
Aveek Bhattacharya (AB): Could you give us a quick thumbnail sketch of your political theory career, your party politics/public policy career, and how they have fitted together?
Marc Stears (MS): I was a historian of political thought and political ideologies in my early career. Then I moved to Cambridge as a junior academic, where they were much more interested in fundamental aspects of politics as it’s practiced – questions of power, coalition building, contingency, unpredictability – all of those things which are much more the day-to-day business of actual politicians. At the same time, Cambridge had this programme called the Cambridge Programme for Industry, which was networking youngish academics with businesses who wanted to think about ethical questions. Ethical leadership in the energy transition was a big one – we worked with BP on the end of hydrocarbons. So Cambridge changed my life in that I was writing more about power and everyday politics and I was also having to translate my ideas into terminology which was going to be understandable by non-scholars.
I then came back to Oxford in the early 2000s, full of the enthusiasm of that stuff from Cambridge. I started to consult with charities as well as business, some campaign groups, about ethical questions and some political theory. And my actual theoretical writing carried on being heavily influenced by my Cambridge years, but if I’m honest, it was a little bit of a lone furrow. I had fun in Oxford, fabulous students and good opportunities. But I did always feel as if I wasn’t able to have this direct conversation between real life politics and political thinking, so I was always looking for new opportunities to be able to do that.
I was lucky that Ed Miliband got elected Labour leader in 2010. Also at that point I was starting to work in community organising circles. There were a series of personal connections with Ed, with Maurice Glasman, with Jonathan Rutherford, James Purnell, which catapulted me into a conversation which was much more immediately political. And at that point, there was real excitement about political ideas, because they were really looking for a new direction for the party. New Labour was finished and failed, it was all over. What the hell are they going to do next? So you know, it was incredibly lucky because they were looking for theory, and as a theorist who had some practice in translating theoretical ideas into public settings, I was in relatively high demand in those early 2010 years. And then that’s it basically. IPPR invited me to be their scholar in residence. Then the Labour Party hired me as its chief speechwriter. And from that point on I kind of had a new groove as essentially a theorist in residence in a think tank or in a political party. And I went from IPPR to Labour, Labour to New Economics Foundation and then from New Economics Foundation to here in Sydney.
A philosophy for Ed Miliband: participatory communitarianism
AB: I understand that at the end of the Brown era there was a search for ideas. To what extent were they philosophical, normative ideas?
MS: There was a real interest in combining two things. First of all, a more participatory democratic mechanism of governance, both in terms of internal party affairs, but also in terms of national government. There was a very strong critique that New Labour had become authoritarian, detached from everyday working people. And that obviously made people interested in democratic theory. Then the other strand of thinking was on how to combine traditionalism or social conservatism with left politics. Because another critique of the Blair/Brown years was that it was very cosmopolitan, getting quite distant from traditional Labour voters concerned with heritage and continuity. Jon Cruddas was the leading political figure in that debate.
From a theorist’s perspective, the magic with both of those concerns was that there was a theoretical debate already ongoing. Agonism essentially was in that space. If you read Bonnie Honig’s Emergency Politics, one of the things it’s doing is combining radically participatory politics with a politics that challenges the dichotomies between liberalism and conservatism. That was really interesting to me, because I could see all this theoretical literature, which was very abstract and difficult. You know, really hard philosophy, but which clearly had immediate political purchase because that’s what the party was looking for at that time. So my position really was as a translator between quite high theory and some very practical political concerns. And I found an incredibly receptive audience for that work. Nick Pearce, then the director of IPPR, became a huge Bonnie Honig fan. Ed Miliband had Danielle Allen come out and got her to do sessions with MPs.
AB: And the messages got across?
MS: Yes, basically. There was enthusiasm to listen, people came to lots of things. It’s just bizarre in retrospect, but the first day of party conference in 2012 was a two-hour participatory session in the main conference hall with Michael Sandel, doing sort of communitarianism, the limits of the market, participation, the false dichotomy between conservatism and liberation.
Grand philosophy vs retail politics: the struggle for Miliband’s Labour party
AB: Do you think it got far beyond the seminar room or the conference floor?
MS: There was a short burst of lots of enthusiasm. I wrote a speech on Englishness for Ed in 2012 And then his conference speech in 2012, on ‘One Nation’ was the high point of the arguments. We got lots of energy from that speech, got written up very well. People thought perhaps Ed has finally found something that resonates with him. But basically, this participatory communitarianism died a death in the second half of Ed’s leadership. As we got closer to thinking there was an election coming, more standard retail politics returned. There was a definite moment, but it was a relatively short moment. And then the group of theorists around the Ed project, either like me decided ‘I’ll make my peace with convention’, or they got off the bus altogether and started throwing rocks at it from the outside, like Maurice Glasman. The big picture political theorists, Danielle [Allen] or Bonnie [Honig], sort of drifted away. They kept on following what has happened, but they were no longer writing memos or having interviews with Shadow Cabinet ministers as they were doing in those early days.
AB: What do you think went wrong?
MS: Ed had to make a decision about whether he followed a traditional electoral warbook or whether he didn’t. And I think that was a battle in his soul basically. His friends and his instincts I think were on our side, pulling Ed into a more democratic communitarian space. But on the other hand – not all – but lots of the professional pollsters, the campaigners, were basically saying, ‘all that stuff is just too weird’. And I think Ed essentially in the end leant on that more conventional playbook because he thought he was going to win the election. And in the end didn’t. Not to say ours would have done instead, of course.
AB: Do you think it is just the weirdness of the project that meant that it was never going to come to fruition?
MS: I think we got the politics wrong. Most of us on this participatory communitarian side posed a clearly ‘in your face’ challenge to the Labour status quo. So, we were fairly relentlessly critical of the New Labour years. But also the ‘60, ‘70s, Wilson/Callaghan social democracy period. I think basically, we were trying to bite off too much. We were alienating too many potential allies. We were not acting very politically.
The rise and fall of ‘Blue Labour’
AB: And where does Blue Labour fit into all of this?
MS: The whole thing was a fascinating media experience. Maurice [Glasman] saw that there was media interest in that in a way that none of the rest of us did. We just thought it was a backroom conversation about party direction and identity. Maurice very quickly realised that actually this could get him on the telly. But the only way you can do that, obviously, is to ratchet up the drama. He did an interview with the Telegraph where he flew this anti-immigration kite, which had been nowhere in the earlier discussion. The Blue Labour phenomenon then became the translation of quite intellectual ideas into a media story, which had to be blunter and more aggressive, taking the argument in a much more dramatic direction than any of the rest of us initially intended to.
AB: So by the time he’d gone to the media with that extreme version, it had already lost the potential for influence internally?
MS: It was always a tricky one, because on the plus side, the attention Maurice gathered meant that people, good people and bad people, were more interested in joining the arguments. We had an amazing day in King’s College London in 2011, for example, with hundreds of people from all walks of life having one-to-one conversations all day about the future of politics, community, identity. We couldn’t have generated that interest without Maurice’s media persona.
On the other hand, it polarised the discussion and simplified the discussion in a way which was really not very helpful, and which definitely pushed Ed further away. That had the paradoxical impact of making him less bold because he just shrank away from the argument Maurice had engendered. Ed was so uncomfortable he didn’t even do a speech on immigration in the 2015 election.
AB: So do you think the media coverage came too early, before you had figured out what Blue Labour was?
MS: I think ultimately it is the clash of the rawness of politics and the reflection of more academic political thinking. Coming back to your overall question about the relationship between political theory and real politics, there can be an invigorating and supportive connection between the two. But there are also just fundamental differences. Real politics is always kind of Schmittian. It has a friendly/enemy polarisation at its core. On the other hand, even an intense academic seminar shouldn’t be like that. The rest of us who came from academia into politics were just not willing to go that Schmittian, but Maurice was prepared to do that. And he kind of took the project with him when he did.
Lessons learned: the need to marry political theory with electoral strategy
AB: So if you were starting again with Labour in 2010, is there anything you would go about in a different way?
MS: Unsurprisingly, I was very naive about internal party politics. The paradox of the story I told you earlier is that right at the end David Axelrod joined our team as Ed’s campaign manager. And Axelrod was much more interested in our side of the argument than in the conventional one. But by that point, it was too late. Axelrod very famously came in and said, ‘You’re running a retail election. You’re not a retail candidate. Trying to get people to vote for you and get a free microwave. You’ve got to be more intellectual than that and more challenging than that, more unconventional than that’. He was really interested in big aspects of this participatory communitarian story. So right at the last minute we had our political guru, campaign genius, understand what the argument was meant to do. We could have found common cause there, I think. But early on, I was totally unconscious, that that’s what you needed and as a result it all came too late. We needed to be able to convince Ed that there was a concrete, credentialed political strategy here as well as an interesting set of ideas. And not doing that right at the start was a mistake born of naivety. All of the polling people that Ed was talking to early on were really rooted in a very traditional partisan strategy. And we didn’t have our alternatives to offer to them straight away. So I think the big thing I would change: right at the start, in 2010/2011 we should have been looking for people that senior Labour figures would trust to deliver an election victory but who were still thinking big. Those people do exist – Axelrod was one of them – but we didn’t find them until too late.
AB: So strategy as well as the vision?
MS: Exactly. How does it translate into votes in marginal constituencies was something that we should have done, and that we didn’t do. And as a result, people who were doing that work weren’t part of our story – they were pushing an alternative story. We should just have found our own strategists basically.
The relevance and irrelevance of different kinds of political theory
AB: How much continuity do you see between the academic work that you had been doing up until 2012 and the political work thereafter?
MS: When I was in academia, Bonnie Honig, Danielle Allen, let’s take them as my two intellectual heroes. When I’ve been a scholar, they were just individual characters in a broader canon. When I was teaching, I would be teaching Rawls and Nozick and Adam Swift and all that other stuff, as well as teaching Bonnie and Danielle. And when I was writing, I was too hesitant about where I was going to commit myself. I hadn’t sort of plumped for one argument rather than another. But that was, I think, in part as a result of the way that you teach political theory in Oxford.
When I went into real politics the thing which became really clear to me was that Bonnie and Danielle actually had arguments which were relevant to the political debates that I was seeing, in a way that to my mind, none of the others did. There was no day where a bit of Rawls helped me. Every day a bit of Bonnie or bit of Danielle helped me. And so I became much more focused on developing an argument, inspired by a particular strand of theorising and much more ruthless in saying all that other stuff, which I used to have to teach, here is no use.
So, that was one lesson. And the other lesson is that style really matters as well as content. One of the things that was attracting me to Bonnie’s work or Danielle’s work is that they are capable of writing poetically. And actually, when you’re in political communications, writing speeches as I was, that’s a really important skill. For example, Danielle’s book, Cuz, about the death of her cousin, is a simply beautifully written book. And it’s making a theoretical argument, very implicitly, in a kind of literary genre. As a speech writer, that’s what you have to do.
The role of political theorists in public discourse and politics
AB: I came across this quote from your essay in the Blue Labour book:
“The essence of democracy” is to say “Who are you?”: “Who are you to tell us what to do? Who are you to tell us what social justice involves, or fairness, or freedom, or equality? Who are you to say what people should aspire towards and what they should seek to avoid? These are decisions that must be made by real people in the contexts of their real lives. They are not to be answered for the public by anyone else, be that by well-meaning academics or politicians or other experts.”
If that applies to political philosophers as much as any other elites, what do you think the role is for political philosophers in public discourse and politics?
MS: That quote is basically where I’m at. It’s the summation of what I’m trying to say. Just to give you an example, last night we were at the Wayside Chapel here in Sydney, which is a community organising hub. Every couple of weeks, they have a community dinner where academics will come, business people will come, the homeless come, religious people come, you know, non-religious people, and people talk. And in the conversation is definitely a role for academics or intellectuals because they’ve been able to spend time reflecting on profound and deep thoughts and they’ve got beautiful wisdom, and someone who has spent their time reading Aristotle for 10 years has got really interesting things to say. But what I love is that somewhere like Wayside, those contributions are on an equal level with the lived experience of someone who’s been on the streets for five years who can actually tell you what interacting with the police is like at three o’clock in the morning. And, you know, those conversations are just wonderful and profound. And there is a bit of a division of labour – each is bringing their own special things to the table. But there is an equality of meeting.
Danielle’s Talking to Strangers sets out that the real contribution that theory can make is twofold. One of which is being a participant in those kinds of conversations. But also she gives us a framework for being able to think about that and to understand why it’s so important. So I think theory plays those two roles. Theorists should be in the conversation themselves as equal participants bringing their own very special wisdom to bear. But they should also help us make sense of what’s going on.
AB: It feels like there’s a bit of an irony here in that I’m talking to you because you’re the political theorist who was plucked out to sit in Labour HQ and advise the potential next prime minister. But it sounds like ideally what you want is not for anyone to sit in that position, for the role of the political theorists not to be philosopher kings.
MS: One of biggest reasons I was pleased to do what I could do was because I could be – along with a handful of other people – the person who was saying to Ed you need to spend as much time talking to the cleaners and the teachers and the kindergarten workers as you do speaking to the captains of industry and professors of politics. And, to his credit, he wanted to listen to that story. And he did listen to that.
Danielle Allen, again, is a wonderful example of that. You sit with Danielle and you come away thinking, ‘the thing I need to do in my life is to talk to more people who are different from me’, that’s what she manages to persuade you to do. That’s why I would always want her to be at the president’s side. If it was an Elizabeth Warren presidency or whatever, she needs a Danielle Allen, she needs someone who she respects, who will say ‘it’s not good enough for you to be talking to established conventional elites, you really need to have proper, real conversations with other people’. I think theorists can play that role, democratic theorists especially. But they’re not the only people who play it, there are other professions who have the same skill.
AB: I guess the other thing that follows from that is, to a certain extent it’s not so important what is happening in Whitehall and Downing Street. Do you think there are enough spaces for political theorists to go out there and be spreading their wisdom in the community? And what do you think that looks like when it when it works well?
MS: So that’s what we’re trying to do at the lab. Not just for theorists, but for academics generally, it’s to create the opportunities for these conversations to happen. We train 35 academics for a seven week programme in community organising twice a year so they know the basic skills of how to get out of the academic bubble and into different settings and make themselves understood and find common cause. There’s huge enthusiasm for it, but also people are utterly unequipped. Nowhere on an undergraduate career or a PhD curriculum is there any training on how to do that.
Personally, I think once you’ve got over that there is, in civil society especially, an amazing enthusiasm to be able to learn from scholars. I’ve found that, at least. Once they’ve made the effort to translate their ideas into sort of more accessible format, almost everybody wants to have those conversations. I just think that’s what we should be doing. All of the incentive structures in academia mitigate against it. Professionalisation, specialisation, journal publication, all of that stuff. Very, very, very, very narrowing. And community engaged work takes longer, is harder, it’s less predictable. And you don’t know what its outputs are going to be. But nonetheless, if you fight against those a little bit, I think, there’s huge demand for it.