Tuesday 7 July 2009

A Miliband manifesto

A lot of interesting stuff to chew over in David Miliband's John Smith Memorial Lecture last night, which can be read in full on the New Statesman site.

While the core themes will be familiar to close Miliband-watchers, it is important for the political health of any government for its leading figures to be able to step back and offer a political analysis of the country and their party. Given that it is in the nature of the role that Prime Ministers speak more to national than party audiences, I feel this is something Gordon Brown's colleagues have too seldom attempted outside their specific ministerial briefs over the last two years.

I would highlight four significant arguments in the speech.

1. Legacy

The claim for Labour's record as a government of enduring reform is made well, particularly when the argument against 'democratic pessimism' and for the possibility of political change is a difficult one to make from in power without seeming either defensive or shrill. It is a much better defence for being fair-minded and candid about the areas it covers, though the brief audit can not attempt to be comprehensive, steering clear of Miliband's foreign policy day job and Iraq; of the governing of markets, and home affairs.

The defence of progress made is combined with an "inside critique", echoing Geoff Mulgan's argument that the pressure to exaggerate the possibility of short-term change means that governments struggle to articulate the scale of longer-term change that is possible, identifying several areas where a different or deeper agenda is now needed.

What is not quite said is that one reason why the government does "not do a good job of explaining" these changes is that it never quite set out a clear public account of how these different reforming impulses fitted together into a coherent sense of Labour's sense of the country it was seeking to shape. So New Labour has reformed but only partly realigned, exemplified by the incrementalism of its own agenda and especially in the ambiguity about whether and how far its opponents have substantively changed.

2. After Thatcherism

This ambiguity about the nature of the change which Labour sought to bring about in part reflects an ambiguity about its inheritance too: neither New Labour's last nor its next generation (nor indeed the New Tories) have yet been able to give a clear and frank public account of Thatcherism and its consequences, fearing this would divide their electoral coalitions.

Miliband edges forward with a good account of how the creative destruction of Thatcherism has disrupted the politics of the right, setting economics and social instincts at odds. The implication that social democracy must seek to reconcile those contradictions perhaps sets a direction of travel, though it leaves several important questions open.

Thatcherism ultimately undid the Tories for a generation because it liberated economic dynamism without finding a way to build social trust or protection as a buffer against those very same forces. The result was a political not to say moral contradiction which the Tories have not yet resolved. Our challenge is to sustain and spread forces of individual empowerment more equally while enhancing rather than reducing capacity for collective action to tackle shared risks.

3. Ideology and equality

This leads Miliband to restate his important argument for fusing the instincts and insights of the liberal and social democratic traditions, in pursuit of an egalitarian liberalism.

I want to make one point about ideology. New Labour has embraced the pro Europeanism and multilateralism traditionally associated with Labour’s right, while it embraced the individual rights and minimum wage proposed by the left. It was and is a coalition within the party. It is strongest when it combines the tradition that goes under a radical liberal banner, sometimes with a small l and sometimes a large one, with its focus on individual liberty and pluralism, and the social democratic tradition of Crosland and others like John Smith, with its focus on societal equality driven through action by the state ...

To contrast these traditions as liberty versus equality, is a ‘category mistake’. As Amartya Sen says: ‘Liberty is among the possible fields of application of equality, and equality is among the possible patterns of distribution of liberty. The radical liberal tradition can teach social democrats the importance of individual lives and stories in the overall pattern of the good society. It speaks to empowerment. The social democrat can teach the radical liberal that, without social justice, there is no freedom. It speaks to collective insecurity. As we address the needs of Britain over the next ten years, we will need to draw on the radical liberal as well as the social democratic tradition.

This places Miliband on the social democratic wing of the liberal republican project. And, since he has been making this argument, the debate about ideas has moved in his direction. I felt that an important theme of the latest Richard Reeves and Phil Collins Demos pamphlet 'The Liberal Republic' was that it no longer critiqued this fusion project by insisting that liberalism must replace and trump social democracy, instead accepting a large part of Miliband's argument for a synthesis in its new liberal (and social democratic) focus on capabilities.

On Stuart's what type of egalitarian are you? map, I suspect Miliband may be in the 'strong meritocrat' camp, with a particular emphasis on inequalities of power. But he is certainly among those frontline politicians who could engage with and answer that question themselves. One participant in the recent Fabian/JRF seminar with John Denham noted the strong element of fairness as reciprocity (and so 'luck egalitarianism', though the term was not used) in the philosophical work which David Miller undertook for the IPPR social justice commission which Miliband led at the start of the 1990s, though noted too that it was difficult to integrate those insights into the social democratic policy agenda of the Commission.

4. Party reform

The crunchiest part of the speech was around party reform, and several reports picked this up. The direction of travel strongly chimes with that set out by Nick Anstead and Will Straw in The Change We Need, with an especially neat europhile twist in deriving those lessons from the Greek socialists as much as the Obama campaign. I hope Nick, Will, Anthony Painter and others pushing this argument might offer more detailed analysis of Miliband's contribution and where this debate goes next.

It seems to me that the argument has been largely won, but that this is far from enough. We have an ever stronger rhetorical consensus at all levels of the party on the end of 'top down' and the case for a shift to 'movement politics' inside and beyond the party. What may be needed now is advocacy and organisation for several achievable concrete changes which might catalyse the broader shift in party culture. Giving this some sharper tangible focus would probably build momentum over time but also identify where quiet resistance may be lurking.


So the speech contains a lot of interesting signposts towards a next phase of confident social democratic advocacy and reform. But rather more is needed to flesh this out. I would highlight three important parts of a political argument which are also needed.

1. This strikes me as an effective speech in opening an intelligent discussion with the government's supporters, perhaps particularly in offering to engage confidently but seriously with those who are constructively critical (including many party members). This matters. The government did not do seem to do this much ahead of the 2005 campaign, too often employing a hectoring and arrogant tonality of entitlement which probably repelled considerably more wavering support than it attracted.

But it is more difficult to see how far this yet speaks to more detached, disillusioned or hostile opinion, including among progressive audiences, which is also necessary to rebuild the broad base of support needed for a serious contest.

2. The speech is inevitably rather policy light. Collective responsibility does not bar specific ideas and recommendations around party reform, but places constraints elsewhere. Without advocating a free-for-all, some pushing at the boundaries would be useful. Political reform is an obvious area, where Alan Johnson's intervention probably did change the odds as to whether the government takes the plunge and goes for an electoral reform referendum. Right now, there is too little engaged debate within the party and with broader constituencies about how Labour's future vision should translate into an election manifesto. That can not at all be a job for Ministers alone - it is a responsibility we all have - but the government and party can help to create that space, which is important to mobilise campaigning energy over the year ahead.

And I am not yet entirely persuaded by Miliband's argument for empowerment as the animating and transformative mission, couched in the 'I need', 'I want', 'I can' triptych describing three generations of political change.

This is an attractive direction of travel, and an important part of the picture. There are some difficulties in translating this into an effective and comprehensible public politics as well as to develop it from policy blueprints into concrete change that is experienced as real by those it would seek to empower. But perhaps the most important political challenge is ensuring that Labour advocates a distinctively social democratic empowerment agenda, as Miliband's egalitarian liberal fusion project implies, so as to avoid the danger of a warm words rhetorical consensus across the political spectrum in which the significant choices are obscured. Here, Stuart White's democratic republicans could no doubt assist if Miliband were to be seeking some sharper egalitarian edge for his empowerment agenda.

3. Most importantly of all, while this is a significant analysis of the condition of the government after 12 years, it is thinner as an analysis of the condition of Britain. Miliband offers an important policy audit, but perhaps too much the view from the Cabinet Office or from Whitehall. A broader argument about the state of the nation is implicit, but rather understated.

This reflects an account of both the scope and limits of New Labour reform: that the government has significantly realigned across the field of policy, where it has had a buzzing policy energy reflected in the changes Miliband identified, but has paid little attention to creating public political space to go further. Indeed, political space has often closed in on the government over time, and some strategies designed to gain permission may have contributed to this.

So the government has a stronger story to tell on policy and governance than is often acknowledged. But there is little point, politically, in being able to win detailed policy arguments on the data if political opponents remain ahead on public narrative and framing.

The government's forward agenda often contains detailed agendas for change in the economy, education, the environment and elsewhere - but not yet enough attention has gone in to articulating a clear public sense of the problems which the agenda is seeking to address. The Building Britain's Future strategy does begin to do this, with a similar analysis to that offered by Miliband: it was important to have an agenda which began from a social and political analysis, though this must be developed further.

Such a critique of the country it governs is difficult for long-standing incumbents, but must underpin any programme for change.

That state of thenation argument must be one about opportunity and inequality. Perhaps for Miliband, this would have a strong emphasis especially on inequalities of power and control. This is implicit in the Miliband speech - and set out more expansively in an earlier Fabian speech on 'the fight against fate'.

One of the most striking features of the Fabian Society report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is not just that the scale of unequal opportunities, while easily recognised and understood when discussed, is much less salient than individualised explanations. It is also that there is widespread recognition that Britain has changed significantly - with particular concern voiced about the increased insecurity and intensity of work combined with a more materialistic culture - yet absolutely no clear public sense about why society has changed, still less a consensus about this. This was also a significant driver of fatalism - which is linked to the type of 'democratic pessimism' which Miliband wants to challenge.

So this account of the government's political journey is certainly important in the quest for political renewal; an analysis and critique of the condition of Britain in 2010 is more foundational still.


_______ said...

"Our challenge is to sustain and spread forces of individual empowerment more equally while enhancing rather than reducing capacity for collective action to tackle shared risks." - Miliband

He sounds like a democratic republican here. Pooling risk is the democratic republican way, it means brute luck doesn't determine people's lives, but instead their choices have more power over the natural environment, their diseases and each other.

I don't think Miliband is a liberal republican of the social democratic strand. I think he was saying radical liberal ends are best achieved through modernized social democratic means... which may refer to democratic republicanism.

Stuart White said...

David Miliband's speech reads to me like a centrist republicanism broadly in the Reeves/Collins mold, maybe with some nods in a more left republican direction. I'll add it to my list of centre republican texts!

In terms of the 'what kind of egalitarian are you?', I think David is a combination of a strong meritocrat and a relational egalitarian (as are Reeves and Collins, I think).

Definitely worth a read!

Anthony Painter said...


I agree with you that the party reform elements of the speech were the strongest and I don't really have any concern with them- liked the PASOK references. Ultimately, people will gravitate towards closed rather than open primaries in my view: (i) open primaries would need state involvement so are a deeper proposition (you need to run them concurrently and they would be too costly for the parties if done properly); (ii) vested interests may well prevail if the proposed reform is not building on the current system (as indeed they have in the Tory party where they experimented with this quarter-heartedly). So I agree with you that an organisational strategy is now needed. More importantly, a CLP needs to DO it (i.e. have a closed primary open to declared Labour supporters.)

More broadly, I was left rather cold by the speech. I don't think his characterisation of Thatcherism as a Tory problem worked. Nor was it intellectually honest. Labour accepted much of the economic elements of the creed with predictable outcomes. Perhaps with Mandelson's 'strategic state' and UKFI some of it is now being challenged but probably not. Labour tried to load the market in favour of the less empowered which had some good impacts but the dynamics of the free market remain strong....too strong.

Ultimately, the test of a speech like this is does it provide us with a political narrative for coping with a situation where we face (at least) a triple crisis- economic, political, and environmental? On each of these it felt like a box was being ticked but the language and the argument didn't resonate, much less the vision. I want to hear about people and communities, and lives, and adversity, and endeavour, and did I say people? This way of discussing politics is too abstract even for political junkies.

A related worry is that we may now be responding to political adversity by over-intellectualising. We need to be in touch, have a story, and have a plan. It is a fascinating debate about strands of republicanism, communitarianism and liberalism- genuinely, I'm enjoying the various elements and voices. Equally, I feel that it is a discussion that may not reach us at ground level. In touch, good story, a plan.....


Sunder Katwala said...


Interesting points.

Yes, some people risk over-intellectualising all of this. Who are they and how do we stop them !!!

Seriously, I think the point that we need more attention to political ideas and will fail in a 'renewal through political consultancy' model, and the challenge you present that an ethereal ideas debate needs to be turned into public political argumentation.

The left is (in my view) demonstrating rather more interest in ideas than the right. But the right has been very good for 30 years at external public-facing advocacy. I don't accept that there is a zero-sum choice between our own discussions and public facing discussions, but I think the greater challenge (eg in our recent research) is about value-based public advocacy which connects to and translates political ideas, like equality.

_______ said...

Anthony: It's true of the need to connect philosophy to policy. But it is good to discuss philosophy, so that we know what were about, and have something to guide our policies and prioritise them. Social Democracy risks becoming populism if there isn't an overall guiding philosophy somewhere in the policies.

I think the discussion of the 2 republicanisms, and 2 communitarianisms can help social democrats come up with policies to improve public services like education, healthcare, and identify new labour laws worth implementing.

I hear labour is releasing a white paper on social care, and planning to increase national insurance contributions to pay for a universal care for the elderly. This will reduce risk for the elderly and stop them from having to sell their homes and assets to buy elderly care. Does this give people more power over their lives? Yes, I think it does, and it pools risk, and increases the citizenship opportunities of the children of elderly people currently having to sell their homes and assets to by elderly care. Universal home care for the elderly will lead to a better society and a more democratic republican society of autonomous citizens.

Anthony Painter said...

Indeed- and I'm a big fan of your work......(and Stuart White's post last week was a 'classic blog' in my view)

Fawning aside, I think the issue I had with the Miliband speech (and I made fun of it a bit on my blog this am which is a bit cheap but none of us is perfect) is that is failed to bring that discussion to life. It was reminiscent of all those Third Way discussions we used to have a decade or so ago.

You are correct in saying that the Right's interest in ideas has been waning. In the US, they have an ossified Reaganism. In the UK, there was a brief upsurge where behavioural economics and social psychology seemed to have caught their imagination. But the closer they get to power, the less interested they seem in thinking. The credit crunch was a golden opportunity to demonstrate some of the creativity that President Sarkozy, eg, has shown. But they failed and defaulted back to orthodoxy.

Funnily enough, over lunch I was reading a piece on Ronald Dworkin in the NYRB. It made the point that the Democrats moved on from the notion of the narrative last year (not sure I quite accept that but moving on....). Instead, Obama was grounded in firm liberalism but engaged in a different way- one that demonstrated that he shared the values and morals of most Americans- in so doing he won their trust. So ideas are the anchor. But he also properly framed the discussion and reached out- "America we're better than two failed wars and a bust economy, and 47 million without healthcare, and an environment that is hurting. We know this isn't right so let's work together to change it. Let's get over the old cultural divides and make it happen."

What's our framing of the challenge? The Tories and what they will do can not be the issue. No, the issue is this triple crisis- economic, environmental, and political. But we're not doing that. We are not giving ourselves a purpose which is why I suspect that we (Miliband) are seeking refuge in abstraction.

Let's define the problem. Now what's our answer?

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for comments, which contain a lot of sense.

On the Pasok/primaries: emphasis on one CLP doing it a good idea. With so many candidacies coming up, I can imagine it could be possible to generate some interest. What are the formal barriers to adopting a different method. Am not a rulebook expert, but assume if the NEC were petitioned to allow an experiment, their approval would do it?

On the Miliband speech: I think what I felt was missing re a state of nation critique is similar to part of what you are saying.

I found more in it than you did. On language, I find the passage you blog comprehensible but v.inelegant. I didn't think that was typical. The issue of the problem of political language more generally is a bigger part of the problem than we recognise.
So many speeches could stay undelivered without anyone noticing.

Somewhat In defence of abstraction, in its place anyway ....
While I accept that you are right on public-facing communication, re bringing people in, and it is partly an aesthetic issue, I personally find some of the ways that can be done (esp if done in a boilerplate, US congressional candidate in touch with "real lives" way) very disengaging, and a way of glossing over political arguments and choices. Obviously St Barack is different, but there is a v.reductive way to do this.

Anthony Painter said...

St Barack- is that what's behind the visit to the Vatican later on in the week?

Perhaps there's no need for formal approval? The CLP members would just have to commit themselves to following the result of the primary. Getting subversive....

I agree with your other points and the risk of the people thing becoming crass and schmaltzy. But not if it has authenticity. Compare Obama's story of the centenarian in his victory speech and John McCain's use/ abuse of Joe the Plumber. But there is a middle road- maybe part of the reason that political speeches don't get reported anymore is because they don't resonate (which you imply.)

Charlie Marks said...

The party doesn't need reform in terms of selection of candidates - it needs to democratise policy-making. There's zero input from the membership when it comes to major policy decisions.

This has always been an issue for Labour governments - but for New Labour, which was all about ditching the unions and the traditional voters, there's no means of reconnecting.

New Labour wasn't about building a coalition - it was hostage-taking pure and simple. How else to explain the halving of the membership, the disaffiliation of unions, and the decline in the core vote?

The great promise was always "it'll be different when Gordon takes over" - but it wasn't and isn't. New Labour prevented members from being able to vote on the party leader. Then the election that never was and the Euro referendum that never was...

I take no pleasure in saying it but Labour is fucked. Fucked in Scotland, fucked in Wales, and fucked in England. You can tell because the "modernisers" or "Blairites" are departing in droves. Tory government incoming? Job done for New Labour.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for your comment. Where I agree is that I don't think the current policymaking processes work in giving members voice or influence. We might not agree on how to do that. The Fabian pamphlet 'Facing Out' addressed these issues in detail. I would not defend the current structures as useful, but nor would I restore the status quo ante.

But "hostage-taking pure and simple" over-simplifies. There is an argument, put forward by Phillip Gould for New Labour and endorsed by the campaign group left, where both agree that new labour was a project of about six people, effectively a coup. I don't think it fits the history of what happened. It was a broad internal coalition within the party in 1997, but it was much broader 1994-2001 than it became later.

That 'coalition' approach is underpinned by the 97-01 policy agenda of new deal on jobs and windfall tax, minimum wage, devolution and FoI, public services, social chapter and pro-EU, feminisation of the PLP through shortlists, alongside macroecon stability, aversion to tax rises spoke to a party coalition; the post-01 agenda was arguably rather narrower, with new labour seeming to be about a particular method of public service reform. The party had sharper political instincts in opposition, for all of its caution, eg was using popular language about 'fat cats' (targetted on egregious cases) which it shied away from in power.

Evidence for the coalition approach:
- The membership rose a good deal before falling v.sharply and halving. It is broadly back on the steep overall post-war trend.
- Blair won majorities in all three sections of the 94 electoral college for leader. As well as MPs and members, he had over 50% of trade union vote in a 3-way contest.

Charlie Marks said...

Sure it oversimplifies - but if by coalition you mean a kind of passive toleration - stockholm syndrome perhaps? - then perhaps that's correct.

But the main focus was of New Labour was on castrating any egalitarian impulse - the capitalists are our friends now, no more bosses versus workers. To bring people along with that you've got to say a few things and throw down a few scraps - making it a very one sided coalition. Recall that during the long years of opposition, Labour actually had socialist policies - and dumping them was gradual rather than sudden.

Getting back to today, it's not going to be easy to convince people that Labour is all about "the many, not the few" - a slogan recently revived by Brown. Word is the cabinet aren't happy at his tory cuts vs labour investment rhetoric - which rather suggests there's not the stomach to rebuild a coalition of the sort that New Labour managed.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. I appreciate you take a different view. I don't think there was one true version of socialism, and the gradual shift in agenda began rather earlier, and from 1983-92 made a lot of sense. But I do think the 92 defeat created a worry about making a public case.

That has led us to a position where I think more than scraps have been delivered (where you give tnem less credit) but I agree with you that a coalition can not be rebuilt without clarity about what Labour stands for.

Charlie Marks said...

No one true version - but you know what a move in a socialist (that'd be pro-worker, IMHO) direction is, and New Labour was the exact opposite. Why else would Blair spend so much time focusing on an obscure part of Labour's constitution? The clause four moment was a signal for big business...

For sure we got better employment protections, the minimum wage, devolution (though not in England!), strong support for gay rights. I very much appreciate all of these things - but one could easily imagine a Liberal government doing this stuff.

Recall that the coalition around the 97 victory was 18 years in the making. Many of us had voted Labour come hell or high water because we were getting it in the neck from the Tories. The demands for devolution, a minimum wage, didn't go up against the power of big business, didn't signal a shift in wealth and power towards working people.

Where Miliband seems to have it right is that a fourth term cannot be secured by relying on swing voters, or even traditional vote, the status quo ante - there has to be a feeling of movement, of fighting *for* something.

But there's got to be alliances with the Liberals, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Greens, and many people who have left the party over certain issues.