It is a significant speech, making the case for the candidates somehow finding time to make more sustained interventions outside of their hustings engagements.
In many ways, the speech bears the hallmarks of the Cruddas-Purnell "Next Labour" dialogues of the last year or two. (Indeed, James Purnell, must now relinquish the heir to Keir title and the Order of the Cloth Cap to brother Miliband).
The Guardian reports that Jon Cruddas has described the speech as ""the most important speech by a Labour politician for many years". To make a slightly different, but perhaps not unaligned point, perhaps it is the speech in the leadership contest which has been most influenced by Cruddas' own Compass summer lecture from last year. Quoting Tawney's 1931 The Choice Before the Labour Party is a particular giveaway. (And I am least convinced by the speech as history, where Professor Cruddas' influence is particularly evident, and where the argument could be challenged in the name of Milibandite progressive fusion, though that will have to be the subject of another post).
The first good thing about the speech is that the candidate made it. It is one of a number of signals that we can leave behind New Labour's problem in not knowing how to relate with the party's own history, where a "year zero" project risked cutting itself off from the ability to draw on and critically interrogate the party's own traditions. David Miliband condemns that as "a superficial modernist contempt for the achievements of our forebears". Anthony Painter also notes the importance of this.
Of course, as a political branding exercise, New Labour was enormously effective in the mid-1990s in telling sceptical voters that Labour had changed. But the party paid a heavy price over time for creating the caricature of "Old Labour" of its own history to achieve this. This falsely implied that the "no compromise with the electorate" phase of the party's near nervous breakdown in the early 1980s was somehow an authentic representation of the party's mainstream tradition, rather than an aberration from it. (This was always somewhat confused: New Labour certainly celebrated the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the National Health Service, but appeared embarrassed at even noticing the party's own centenary).
Yet this history problem mattered, because this it was a significant contributory factor in each of three major political problems identified by David Miliband in tonight's speech.
Firstly, why none of the talk of "renewal" in office led anywhere, as the government talked about "change" but seemed unable to define it.
Miliband said tonight:
It was not just more of the same. Far from correcting them failings - tactics, spin, high-handedness – intensified; and we lost many of our strengths – optimism born of clear strategy, bold plans for change and reform, a compelling articulation of aspiration and hope. We did not succeed in renewing ourselves in office; and the roots of that failure were deep not recent, about procedure and openness, or lack of it, as much as policy. That is a political fact and now words are cheap but the stakes are high.
Much of this is common ground between the candidates, who all seem to now agree that the 1997-2001 term was easily Labour's best, though none has yet offered a clear analysis about why this happened (and it was surely a collective failure of the government, and broader party, which is difficult to lay only at the door of the party's two leaders).
Secondly, what David Miliband calls the lack of a "a shared creed that is too often undefined".
What became New Labour grew out of of a long-running argument, from The Future of Socialism onwards, about the basis of a modern social democratic project capable of victory in an age of affluence. New Labour's central weakness was that it was too much and too often an exercise in "negative revisionism", being clearer about what to ditch, but less clear about what to put in its place. New Labour was much more reticent than Crosland had been in making clear that a fairer, freer and more equal society was the goal of a modern social democracy, putting that case only in catch-all terms which struggled to distinguish Labour's argument from that of other parties, particularly once the Conservatives finally sought to contest the political centre again too.
Thirdly, by implying that its commitment to causes risked being part of the problem for a party that wanted to win office, this was part of the barrier which saw New Labour struggle to mobiilise - outside of specific, somehow safer, domain of international development - so that it could not become a modern campaigning "political movement".
The David Miliband speech also captures what some - particularly in the media - have seen as a weakness in this race, but which can also be seen as a good thing for the party: that there is no great ideological difference between the candidates.
In a piece for the next Fabian Review, I suggest the following has emerged as essentially common ground between the field through the hustings, presenting each of the candidates with the challenge of defining their pitch distinctively.
On these points, the candidates agree: Labour is a party defined by its values – and its core commitment to narrowing inequalities in opportunity, income, wealth and power. Labour should be proud of much of its record, but it lost touch over time by becoming too managerial in office. The Iraq war would not have happened if the Government had known Saddam did not have WMD. It should have done more, earlier to challenge unearned rewards at the top of society, and was too timid in pursuing an elected Lords and having more faith in local democracy. The party should pursue equality in representation, and must shift its internal culture to become a movement campaigning in communities for change.
And it is not immediately obvious to me what in the Keir Hardie lecture sharply distinguishes David Miliband from other candidates - with many of the arguments about the state and political economy, ethics and participation, and the need for a movement politics all describing the common ground of the leadership race and most of the broader party. (Compare Ed Miliband on social democracy last week, for one example).
Miliband's Keir Hardie speech can be billed as a constructive quest to combine ideology and moderation, so that Labour has a clear vision of how to represent what Miliband calls "the reasonable hope of a reasonable people". Certainly one can be a social democrat centrist motivated by ideology, though perhaps the speech's moderation means that it often wants to argue both sides of several questions: the failure to be proud enough of the record and the failure to show due humility about mistakes; an excessive "love in with financial markets" and the failure as well to secure business support
One important area of emerging debate is the argument about the importance of reciprocity in welfare: a welfare state based not only on need but also contribution.
David Miliband says:
To reconceive our notion of fairness. In our concern with meeting peoples’ needs we seemed to sever welfare from desert and this led people to think that their taxes were being wasted, that they were being used. When we said fairness, people thought it was anything but. What emerged as a tribute to solidarity, the welfare state, turned into a bitter division. Many of the ‘hard working families’ we wished to appeal to did not view us as their party. We achieved great things but we did not bring people with us, and our motivation appeared abstract and remote.
This has also been a key theme for Ed Miliband, and has been an idea particularly championed by John Denham through drawing on the Fabian Society's research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into public attitudes to fairness and inequality, and Solidarity Society research.
Yet the challenge here for all of the candidates is that this is hardly a new observation. This was also the motivation for "progressive universalism", of which Ed Balls was a principal author, and all of that talk about "hard-working families" and the "squeezed middle". So who can also explain why New Labour's awareness of this problem (leading to a 'rights and responsibilities' approach) did not resolve it, and brought problems of its own and which, because the reciprocity argument was often made primarily punitively, may have exacerbated the decline in public support for welfare to which the reciprocity argument is intended to respond.