David Miliband returns to the fray

David Miliband

Good old David Miliband. He looks like a cute little chimp. With his chimpy little face. He doesn’t really have the aura of a great statesman. And yet many in the Labour Party see him as the man they should have elected leader. The better one. The great ‘lost leader’. The carrier of the Blairite torch. So his intervention in the debate regarding the future direction of the Labour Party was always going to matter.

And it does, in so far as what he has to say will generate lots of interest. It is a shame that his politics are so frightfully tedious, and his policy prescriptions more Blairite than Blair himself. David is supposed to be an intellectual titan. I’ve always found him deeply unimpressive.

His rather long essay on the future of the Labour Party has just appeared on the New Statesman website, and you can read it here. In between the banalities and policy-wonk speak you can just about work out what he is saying, but usefully the NS have also ran a summary article that you can read here. I’m guessing that they knew some of us would find the original piece rather trying.

I’ll sum up the actual arguments beneath the fluff and pseudo- profound platitudes and deal with each in turn:

  1. He warns against falling into the trap of “Reassurance Labour”, a term he has just invented. He proposes instead ‘restless rethinking’. By “Reassurance Labour” he means the current leadership moving slightly leftwards on a few questions, to put it bluntly. It’s a very curious inversion of language by the former foreign secretary. It is when Labour move left that they are stepping out of their comfort zone, not the other way around. They are taking on the Tory media who will try and tear lumps off them. They are challenging the right-wing ideas of many of the electorate. The cop-out is in hugging the Tories close and getting an easy ride in the papers. It is the great deceit of the Labour right that they are the radicals, they are the ones challenging the consensus and the vested interests with ‘new’ ideas. The reverse is true. Accommodating to ‘reality’ is an idea as old as the Labour Party. Indeed it is David Miliband who is seeking reassurance in the long-dead mantras of New Labour.     
  2. He wants to move on from Labour’s focus on the state as the main agent of activity. Again this seems well-meaning and mushy but we need to examine what he is really saying. Firstly, I don’t detect any mass hostility amongst the British people to the state delivering public services. It is a myth propagated by the Tories and their allies in New Labour to justify introducing the market into as many areas of public life as possible. Secondly, if not the state, what? What is the alternative? Miliband is never honest to say what he really means: the market. That is the alternative to state provision. There is no mythical lovely third way. It is a choice.
  3. He believes that Labour should focus on decentralising power, not reducing inequality. What a surprise. Replace something concrete, i.e. taxation of the well-off and the redistribution of the proceeds, with something completely woolly, ‘decentralizing’ power. It really doesn’t mean anything. Whenever New Labour devolved powers (and it was only very occasionally) it was entirely on their terms. Blair and Miliband would have been terrified of any alternative centres of political power emerging to their own and were in fact ruthless centralizers, whether in national politics or the Labour Party itself. It was always just hollow rhetoric. ‘Localization’ and ‘decentralization’ are just glib buzzwords, and are concepts that are occasionally useful if central government wants to pass the buck.
  4. Growth is as important, if not more so, than redistribution. Pure New Labour orthodoxy, and its highly amusing that David tries to present this as radical ‘new thinking’. Of course economic growth is important but how it is distributed is more important. The British economy could contract significantly and we would still have enough resources to build a decent society where no one went hungry or suffered abject poverty. It is a political choice. And it is politically and electorally expedient to not mention that choice. Once again David Miliband is dressing up base political calculation as a matter of high principle. It is nauseating. Why can’t he just be honest? Or does he really believe it?
  5. Labour Party should be ‘modernised’. I can only presume this was added to the essay to tick a box. I’m sure this sounds cynical but by ‘modernise’ Miliband simply means dilute the politics of the party further. If open primaries, which I presume is what he is getting at, ended up selecting leftwing candidates, then he would want that particular innovation knocked on the head quickly. But then maybe I’m being cynical. If the French Socialist primaries for the presidential election have inspired greater engagement it is for two reasons, firstly that the left is stronger (you know David, those dinosaurs that believe in the state acting to ameliorate the worst excesses of the free market) and secondly because the candidates standing have some different ideas from each other, rather than Miliband’s usual preference for a choice consisting of multiple shades of Blairite beige. Interestingly, right now he is in favour of reducing role of ordinary trade union members in Labour’s decision making process. I presume when he says opening up the process he doesn’t have the organised working class in mind. Daily Mail readers are so much more worthy of our attention, aren’t they……….
  6. The record of Labour between 1997 and 2010 needs to be defended passionately. You have to admire the man really. He is a true believer, unconcerned by reality or the fact that his shitty politics are the reason he lost the leadership contest. He has stuck to his guns in a way that would make the Reverend Ian Paisley proud. He clearly thinks that he has nothing to apologise for. Of course when he says that the reputation of the New Labour years needs to be salvaged, what he means is his own reputation. Things did improve in some respects, but Iraq, the growth of private sector involvement in public services, the outrageous clampdown on civil liberties and the role the party played in doing nothing to prevent the financial crisis heavily outweigh the positive things that the Labour Party achieved during those years. If David Miliband can’t see that then he should retire from politics.
  7. The policy changes introduced after Blair won in 1994 were actually more authentically ‘Labour’ than what preceded them. This is an absolute belter. I’ll quote the great man’s essay directly:

“After 1994, we did not say that it was a great pity we had to compromise our principles to meet the electorate halfway; we said that it was vital to reform the statement of our principles to reflect what we believed. The same was true in a range of policy areas, including health, education and crime. We changed our policy better to fulfil our values, not abandon them.

That is what we have to do again – not because we have changed but because the world has changed. Rethinking, not reassuring.”

So the policy changes that Kinnock and Blair introduced had nothing to do with short term electoral calculation? And when Blair and his allies said time and again that dropping social democratic principles would be the only way to get elected they were lying? That appeasing The Sun and Daily Mail never entered anyone’s calculations? That the vision of Britain in the 1997 Labour manifesto was absolutely what Labour thought things should be like in an ideal world?

This is a quite breathtaking re-writing of modern political history. One of the things most apparent in the article is that David is desperate to dress abject political capitulation and Blairite ‘triangulation’ up as some kind of statement of profound and deeply held social democratic principle. He wants to believe that his political philosophy is more authentically social democratic than the Labour left. It is patently ludicrous. But then again, maybe he believes it……..

As usual he trots out the usual vapid clichés about avoiding the ‘trap’ of moving leftwards and electoral viability. It is so dreary and unoriginal it is almost sleep-inducing. One would have hoped that the financial crisis would have sounded the death knell for the ‘More Of The Same’ Tendency. Apparently not though.

They just can’t accept they have lost the argument and are instead determined to wring Labour dry of any last remaining drops of red blood. Their obsession with the narrow interests of a few Middle England voters is the path to electoral oblivion. Theirs is the path to the mass disengagement with politics that we have right now and the reason why turnouts at elections are so miserably low. If David Miliband can’t see that, despite supposedly being a great thinker, then he should just stick to sitting on the board of Sunderland Football Club and walk away from politics. He has nothing useful to contribute.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrew Coates
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 11:54:19

    Exactly, and David Miliband’s comments lead precisely nowhere .

    Blair may have been a ‘winner’.

    His legacy is carried on the Liberal-Tory market-state and the big society.

    He was never on the centre-left enough to be really Labour or a social democrat anyway.


  2. Livers
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 13:11:28

    On 1: I think he means don’t veer to th extremes.
    On 2: I think he means don’t think more state, think better state
    On 3: I think he means local power not central power; elected police chiefs, mayors, greater autonomy and regional consideration in policies.
    On 4: We need a growth agenda, not just pissing around the edges — how are we going to reshape the economy? it should be a central theme.
    On 5: Dunno, not a big deal for me, but not a party member.
    On 6: He has a point, but that is gone now. Certainly a robust response should be given whenever a Tory schlep bangs on about “13 years” and “Labour’s mess”
    On 7: LOL.

    Give the guy a chance and have an open mind, the last thing the labour movement needs is lots of in-fighting and bickering.


  3. NJH
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 15:07:09

    I do believe that he has a point. I think that there does need to be a comprehensive reform of Labour and maybe its relationship to the Unions. It would be both trite and cynical to carry on as he suggests, with platitudes and a softer version of Toryism. It would actually be quite easy to get elected; tell the electorate exactly what they want to hear and then completely ignore your mandate post election. It works for the Tories! I don’t want that and I guess that you and the other contributors don’t want that, either.

    In the past, there were huge enclaves of unionism; factories, mines, ship building, dock and dock workers. We have lost most of them and as a result there is not a bedrock where unions can become established. The last bastions for the unions are the NHS and Civil Service. As a result they become the easiest targets on earth for the the Conservatives and the right wing press.

    I believe that the natural bedrock of the unions and the Labour Party should be the working classes but I cannot see that anything is being done to engage them. The continual refrain from the Tory and right wing press is that the current economic hardship is all the fault of the last Labour government. Shout it long enough and hard enough and to many people it becomes fact. You have recently run blogs on bonuses for bankers and removal of peerages from one. As you stated – it is all a smokescreen.

    What about the Labour Party bringing to light the massive (and continuing?) mismanagement of the banks? Why was not one person called to account? What happened to all the North Sea oil money from the 70s and 80s? Where did it go? What was is spent on? Why are businesses still allowed to escape paying their full share of VAT? Why are companies still evading corporation tax with impunity? Point out the iniquities of bonusses being paid in shares (there is a £2000 cash limit) as it would dilute shareholder power to stop bonusses as the people receiving the bonusses would be able to outvote the other shareholders. Why not list the incredible levels of croneyism that went on following the de-nationalisation of BT, BR, British Gas etc, and the election of Tories to non-executive directorships on the boards?

    I am interested and a supporter of Labour and the Unions but I am not engaged by them. That is the fundamental problem that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t need to be addressed as “socialism” (unfortunately that word actually frightens people) but surely a fairer society could be in there somewhere. There are, fundamentally, a lot more of the 99% than the 1%. Why are the 99% not toally engaged? Dave Miliband is right – it need change but not the way he wants it.


  4. SC
    Feb 12, 2012 @ 17:32:19

    I agree with everything in this post. Although I am on the left wing of the party, it makes me think that the real problem for Labour at the moment is the crumbling of the party’s right wing. Arguably, to win widespread support without completely selling itself out, the party leadership needs to be a compromise between the left and right of the party. (This is the kind of thinking that must have led Dennis Skinner to vote for David Milliband as leader. Maybe it’s fundamentally flawed thinking. I’m not sure, but find it hard to see how a genuinely radical Labour leadership could win an election given, for example, how accepting people have been of the government’s cuts so far.)

    The problem is, there isn’t any coherent, distinctive Labour-right position for the Labour-left to compromise with. You can see this in the vacuous stuff David Milliband writes, or in other vague and often contradictory Blairite attacks on the leadership. Many of the Blairite ideas have either been totally discredited in the public’s mind, or taken over by the coalition (or somehow, in some cases, both). Blairites intimidate and publicly attack the leadership (specifically, Ed Milliband and Ed Balls) without providing any decent ideas of what they would be doing differently. The result is that the leadership is unable to convey a consistent, meaningful message and it is hopelessly unclear to the public what it stands for and how it opposes the government at all.

    If this is right then it’s actually in the left’s interests to help prop up the right to some extent. For instance by supplying it with arguments that don’t threaten its centrist pro-business instincts too much. Like pointing out that the IMF and Martin Wolff in the FT, not to mention several Nobel-winning economists, not known for their radicalism, are opposing austerity. Or that many businesses would be happy if the UK invested more in its workforce (their health and education, which affect productivity) and infrastructure. I don’t really hear these arguments coming forward at the moment.


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