Tuesday 23 February 2010

Miliband's mission and Labour's pluralism challenge

Not a lot of people know that David Miliband has hit Andrew Rawnsley. On The Observer journalist's own account, it was a punch "in the solar plexus" combined with much cursing, as a joshing yet perhaps heartfelt response to the poisoned chalice of being tipped as Labour's next leader for the first time way back in 2002. There have been no calls for an inquiry.

But the Foreign Secretary has this afternoon been focusing on taking Labour's fight to their political opponents, fleshing out the Prime Minister's argument for voters to take a second look at Labour and a long hard look at the Conservative alternative in a speech to Demos. LabourList have the full text.

Miliband has an effective challenge to Cameronism and the coherence of progressive Conservatism, building on Tory wobbles in the tightening opinion pools, in challenging the idea that offering 'conservative means to progressive ends' emulates New Labour's shift towards the political centre.

one reason the Conservative leadership are currently tied in policy knots – backing away from health reform, back to front on government’s role in sponsoring marriage, facing both ways on economic policy - is that they have felt it necessary to assert that they too seek progressive ends, contrary to the history of conservatism. It is quite a bizarre situation. New Labour was built on the application of our traditional values in new ways. The Tories are saying that they have got new values – in with social justice, out with no such thing as society - that will be applied in old ways, notably an assault on the legitimacy and purpose of government itself.

New Labour said the values never change but that the means need to be updated. The Tories want it the other way round. They say the values have changed, but, miraculously, the policies should stay the same. They even boast about not needing a ‘Clause IV moment’.

Miliband suggests that a "hope versus fear" contrast captures the core instincts of left and the right, acknowledging that a "declinist" pessimism may resonate, but arguing for greater Labour confidence in the many myths and misrepresentations of the "broken society" argument which forms the Conservative's core narrative.

The kernel of his analysis of Britain today was this: “There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property”. It was declinist. It blamed government for all ills. And every single assertion that can be measured in his list was wrong. Divorce rates are falling. School achievement is rising. Volunteering is up. Crime is down. The Tory dystopia of modern Britain relies on a picture of what is actually happening in Britain that has as much basis in reality as Avatar does. They need to believe that 54% of children born in poor areas are teenage pregnancies for their politics to add up.

The speech also offers an account of the political vision which should underpin Labour's future manifesto offer. I felt there were two important challenges for Labour's advocacy in seeking to make the Miliband case.

How can the argument for government resonate?

The central difference between Labour and the Conservatives remains a different account of government, making the case for an enabling state as essential to spread the distribution of power.

That principle is that power needs to be vested in the people, but we do not reveal a powerful populace simply in the act of withdrawing the state. In fact a powerless government simply means more power for the already powerful

Miliband suggests the left, in contrast to a "zero sum" view of state and social power on the right, recognises three essential commitments from the state to spread and distribute power.

* "First that it guarantees what markets and self help cannot provide".

* "Second, the role of government is to provide a platform for markets and civil society. Strong government can nurture citizen responsibility not stifle it".

* "Third, government only works as an ally of powerful people when power is situated in the right place – starting locally". This subsidiarity argument recognises the need for multilateralism.

That is the social democratic core of Miliband's argument, combined with a greater liberal emphasis on the means by which power is distributed. It is good analysis, though I am not sure that any leading Labour figure has yet found quite how to make this argument about means resonate publicly, and to make it a cause to fight for in an election campaign.

Miliband's articulation of the fight against fate, some time ago, remains one of the best shots at bringing the animating mission of the political left to life. Labour needs to make this idea - that "fairness doesn't happen by chance" - central to its campaign narrative.

A liberal revival?

Miliband's consistent argument that the British left's future lies in a fusion of liberalism and social democracy is an attractive one.

But there is a weakness in the apparent advocacy of this today as largely representing a 'New Labour continuity' agenda.

Miliband told Demos today:

In the 1990s, spurred by David Marquand’s book The Progressive Dilemma, Labour embraced a more pluralist centre-left politics, in a conscious effort to draw on its liberal as well as social democratic heritage. That coalition has now dominated politics for a decade, bringing together individual rights in a market economy with collective provision to promote social justice.

I am proud of the long lists of changes in each category. I think we have changed the country for the better. The liberal achievements - gay rights, human rights, employee rights, disability rights - on the one hand. The social democratic ones - childcare, university places, health provision - on the other. And then those areas that fused the best of both: a New Deal for the Unemployed that uses the private and voluntary sector, devolved budgets for disabled people, the digital switchover, Academies, all combine government leadership with bottom up innovation and engagement.

Reviving the argument that there are big progressive causes - climate change, development, inequality and political reform - which can unite progressives across party boundaries against the right is important. Gordon Brown made that pitch on Saturday, having returned to the idea of a new constitutional settlement and electoral reform.

But rebuilding that argument and renewing those potential coalitions, will not be easy.

A good, though counter-cultural, argument for Labour as an agent of liberal progress can be made particularly for the first term from 1997 - 2001. This achieved more in decentralising power, particularly in political reform, than any British government since 1911.

So that legacy of Labour's half-conversion to political pluralism in the 1990s should count in the ledger, as at least a plea in mitigation against New Labour's reputation for authoritarianism. But it is equally important to understand why the government is so widely viewed as having so little instinct for liberalism, pluralism or civil liberties, and to develop an account of the need not for continuity but for a much deeper further shift in the political culture of both the British political system and the party itself.

David Miliband's repeated advocacy of a reset referendum, including fixed election dates, could provide a foundational moment for a full constitutional settlement.

But this also requires rather more of a critique which demonstrates an understanding of why that is necessary.

That is certainly harder for David Miliband or for Gordon Brown, in government, than it was for his friend James Purnell outside of it in his own speech on power at the LSE last week.

And the arguments for a politics of apology set out cogently by James Crabtree and extended by Jessica Asato just before Christmas break all of the rules of political campaigning in an election year.

And yet it is a challenge which can not be ducked, sooner or later, if Labour's renewed interest in political pluralism is to persuade voters to take a "second look" and to engage with the broader progressive audiences it seeks.


_______ said...

Decentralizing power and removing arbitrary power, in ways that don't create new injustices or power inequalities, can be something labour can get radical about and excite the electorate with. Particularly in a time of squeezed spending, when wealth redistribution is harder, power redistribution becomes the only thing to pursue radically. Young people and potential lib dem voters will be particularly attracted to the radical constitutional reform, and middle England and pensioners will place high value in public service reform and voluntary individual budgets etc.

Robert said...

Power companies making massive profits labour does nothing again.

My council tax is going up and Labour are talking of cutting what benefits I get, I've problems I cannot even get my wheelchair repaired, yet we are asked to look at labour again I have and it's a right wing Thatcherite party.

I've not voted Tory but the last chance has gone when Labour stated they would stopped DLA and AA from the over sixty fives, the Tories have said they will not so I will vote Tory. I've been in labour for 43 years.