Friday 9 July 2010

Heir to Keir?

David Miliband has given the Keir Hardie memorial lecture tonight in Mountain Ash, South Wales. You can read it here.

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.


Unknown said...

I have always viewed Labour's historic mission is in terms of interests - the party was set up by the trade union movement to ensure representation of people previously excluded, their interests and needs. I sense this is something both Miliband brothers understand.

The influence of Crosland on David is evident - particularly the argument that Labour must be socialist and not statist. Crosland argued that the postwar consensus had created the conditions for democratic socialism without the need to radically change ownership structures in the private sector. At the time, the proposed solution to redistributing wealth and power was nationalisation - a rather bureaucratic form of public ownership that offered little empowerment to either employees or consumers. Whilst Crosland believed that the state could own firms in strategic sectors to encourage competition or protect national interests, he argued the mixed-managed economy was sufficient - capitalism had been transformed and a capitalist class as such could not longer be said to exist, with firms becoming owned by shareholders, etc.

I've argued on my own blog ( that New Labour represented an understandable compromise with the upper class so that the overwhelming hostility to the party in the press would be lessened, and the party could communicate its message to a wider audience - and then, build the coalition which brought the party to office, and enabled the much-needed social democratic reforms to take place.

The one candidate who has put this into words is Andy Burnham, which I find curious as he initially positioned himself as a "continuity candidate". We do need to understand this for Next Labour to rebuild the coalition of interests that elected the party in 1997.

The central vision for the economy has to be "co-operativism". I recall the rumours that Gordon planned to use this particular "vision thing" but nothing transpired of it, perhaps because of the need to show the ruling class that an "orderly transition" had taken place, and that he wasn't the secret socialist people made out. I don't know. But I'm glad David puts a great emphasis on mutuality.

In the teeth of the worst recession in living memory, there has been continued successs by firms such as The Co-operative Group and the John Lewis Partnership here in the UK and the co-operative leagues like the Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain and France's SCOP manufacturing firms. With the increased trust of consumers in building societies and credit unions after the banking collapse, it seems there is a public appetite for the co-operative alternative and a belief that it is possible to combine social justice and economic efficiency within the firm.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for an interesting comment.

I am adding hyperlinks to your longer post on the theme

Will change be moderate or radical? from the in the hands of the many blog.

"If David Miliband has positioned himself as a radical moderate, Ed Miliband positioned himself as a moderate radical in announcing his leadership bid" is an interestingly nuanced distinction!

Harry Barnes said...

It is good to see that David Miliband has produced a "think piece" that relates to Clause 4 of the Labour Party Constitution. It is, therefore, disappointing that he has not responded to the call for him to issue a "Manifesto of Intent" related to Clause 4 and spelling out his plan of direction should he be elected as leader. I handed the request to him on 19 June, when he greeted me like a long lost brother who wasn't standing against him for the leadership. Three other copies have been either emailed or posted to him. The call currently has the support of Party members from 24 CLPs and the Socialist Health Association. The request appears as the final item on the thread I posted on your blog, here -
It went to the other candidates. The only candidate who has answered the request is Andy Burnham, who has promised to produce a personal manifesto. David could clearly deliver, but I assume that he wishes to avoid giving too many hostages to fortune.

This is the easiest avenue for people to add their support to our call -

septicisle said...

The idea that "tactics, spin, high-handedness – intensified" under Brown is utter, utter nonsense, and something only a Blairite like Miliband could claim with a straight face. The difference was that Brown was less subtle at all three, the "clunking fist" of Blair's formulation.