Thursday 26 August 2010

Why David Miliband shouldn't want to be heir to Rab

David Miliband said something very intriguing in his major speech last night about the best model for the rethink and renewal which Labour needs.

“Labour under new leadership must engage with the big issues facing Britain with an openness, a freshness, a vivacity unlike anything it has seen.

The closest parallel I can think of is the Tories’ rethink under RA Butler after they lost the 1945 General Election.”

Rab Butler may now be remembered primarily as a man who failed to seize his chances to be Tory party leader and prime minister - in both 1957 and especially 1963, when Enoch Powell cruelly but perhaps accurately observed that Butler had been handed a loaded revolver but failed to shoot for fear it would make a noise. But Miliband is right to say that Butler's greater contribution was in bringing the Tories to terms with the post-war political settlement, for which Butler and Gaitskell was immortalised in the so-called "Butskellite" centrist mixed economy and welfare state consensus which can be seen as lasting from 1951-74, before being rejected by both right and left in the mid-1970s.

But is this really the best analogy for Labour's renewal challenge now? These strike me as being a rather better description of the Cameron political challenge in reshaping Conservativism after New Labour.

A much better analogy for Labour now is the challenge which faced Labour (rather than the Tories) after 1951 - and which the party largely flunked, having already run out steam in office after 1948. The Attlee government had enormous achievements, being effective in addressing the problems of Britain of the 1930s and changing the condition of the country, but could not then find an approach which spoke to the new society which it had done much to shape. This was best expressed by Richard Crossman in the introduction New Fabian Essays of 1952, arguing that the difficulty of renewing a party at the end of a long period in power was that it was liable to rely too heavily on its experience in office and so to fail to look with fresh eyes at the new society which had resulted from its reforms. As he famously wrote:

[Labour had] "lost its way not only because it lacked maps of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers".

That, again, is one trap that Labour's next leader will have to avoid, whoever it is, if they wish to substantiate their claims to be candidates of "change".

What's wrong with seeking to emulate Rab's Tory refresh after 1945?

Firstly, the implication of that as a lesson for Labour depends on a prediction that the Coalition reshaping the politics of the next three decades as profoundly as Clement Attlee did from 1945-75, and Margaret Thatcher did in the three decades after 1979. That case is very much unproven. It is also somewhat at odds with an argument promoted by the elder Miliband's campaign (perhaps rather over-optimistically) in CLP debates that the party must choose the most "Prime Minister ready" of the candidates since the Coalition could collapse at any time.

Of course, Labour must address the challenge of opposing the Coalition intelligently, which can be difficult during a leadership contest. Yet Miliband's analogy could risk conceding the argument about who will set the terms over which the centre-ground is framed. The Coalition is caught between embarking on enormously radical ventures on several fronts at once - the scale of deficit elimination; NHS organisation; schools. Whether this will come to be thought brave or reckless remains to be seen. There are also many areas where the Coalition now renews Cameron's early claim to be "heir to Blair", on the existing New Labour centre-ground, or where it faces challenges - as in the IFS' destruction of its distributional fairness claims for its first budget - where the rhetoric does not match the reality.

Secondly, while Butler did modernise the Tory party machinery, the outcome in policy terms of Butlerism was a Churchill administration of 1951-55 which was perhaps the most "no change" government that 20th century Britain has ever seen, with the emphasis very heavily on accepting the legacy of its opponents, as emphasised by Churchill in the King's Speech debate in which he suggested a desire to rise above partisan politics.

This was politically enormously effective: the government's moderate and conciliatory course shot Labour's fox in response to the central campaign claim that the Conservatives were the "same old Tories" of the 1930s. (It helped a great deal that prominent Conservatives were centrists by conviction and not merely circumstance, especially in Macmillan's strongly Keynesian opposition to Treasury austerity which involved facing down monetarist challenges from the party's right, as he mocked claims of a debt crisis).

But while the Tory governments of 1951-64 dealt very well with the political challenge of accomodating the Labour legacy, yet they could hardly be said to have been effective in coming up with new approaches to the great challenges of their time: to Britain's relative economic decline, or in redefining Britain's place in the world. (The transition from Empire to Commonwealth managed deftly, but Britain did not find a future role). In this, they were impeccably conservative governments of consolidation and managed decline, rather than of change whether from right, centre or left.

Indeed James Purnell told me in a Fabian Review interview in the Autumn of 2008 that Labour's critique of Cameron should be that his conservatism risked repeating the mistakes of the Butler era Tories.

Purnell believes that David Cameron owes less to Blairism than to Harold Macmillan's paternalistic Toryism:

"I think its that kind of conservatism which hasn't invented the status quo but realises it can't turn the clock back, so it has to defend the new status quo rather than the old one. David Cameron's problem is that he's a small-c conservative as well as a big C Conservative. If we look back in ten or twenty years, we won't be saying that what we needed to do was protect the status quo.

I think that's a recipe for decline. That was the sort of mistake that was made in the fifties and sixties - a failure to realise the way the world was changing, whether it was trade union law on our side or the attitude to the empire on their side.


Unknown said...

I was pretty worried/puzzled by that reference to Butler. What the Tories had to contend with back then was the changed balance of forces in the country - the postwar settlement of full employment in a mixed-managed economy with a strong trade union movement. It was pretty much impossible to put forward an alternative that was credible.

The only reasonable comparison he could have made was to Labour during the early to mid-nineties...

Sunder Katwala said...

On reflection, there have been five major post-war shifts in the major parties, and the claim that Labour's challenge is on a greater scale than any of the last four strikes me as implausible hyperbole.

1. The Tories influenced by Rab Butler, accomodating the Attlee settlement.

2. The Tory break with the post-war consensus under Thatcher.

3. Labour's shift left between 1979-83, including the departure of the SDP

4. Labour's modernisation and shift back to the centre-left under Kinnock, Smith and Blair.

(Alternatively, the 1983-1994, and post-1994 could be seen as separate).

5. Cameron's modernisation of the Tories, in a belated adaptation to their 1997 and successive defeats.

It seems to me that the most profound challenges were to Labour after 1983, since they had to adapt to Thatcherism following the party's own shift sharply left, and indeed a major split in the party with the SDP forming, and profound differences between the party leadership and the trade unions in Kinnock's first 2 years. Miliband could rightly say that taking three terms to achieve this is a warning of how difficult it could be, but there is nothing like the same level of ideological fissure that Labour had to deal with after 1951 and 1979. The critique of the party's record in power, while necessary, is much more nuanced than in 1979, justifiably.

Better analogies are the Labour party after 1951, the Tories after 1964 and 1997, in having to adapt to a long period in office and then defeat.

Unknown said...

With each of these shifts there were prior events which informed those acting - for 1, the strength and determination for a post-war alternative amongst working people; 2, the defeat of Heath; 3, the Labour govt's adoption of austerity measures; 4, successive trade union defeats and mass unemployment; 5, Labour's unprecedented electoral success and changing social attitudes.

On four, I'd favour splitting pre- and post- 1994, perhaps in light of what Andy Burnham says about the S-word being banished from polite society. I recently had to argue with someone what "public ownership" did not feature in the old Clause Four and that it stressed popular administration - which is perhaps a testiment to why it had to be changed in some way. Having said that, our current statement of values lacks the mutualism David Miliband espouses.

Interestingly, in his contribution to the "ideology" debate, David mentioned Tawney's essay "The Choice Before the Labour Party". This seems a little suprising given the terms of reference used:

"In the sphere of international, as of domestic, policy, the attempt to give a social bias to capitalism, while leaving it master of the house, appears to have failed. If capitalism is to be our future, then capitalists, who believe in it, are most likely to make it work, though at the moment they seem to have some difficulty in doing so. The Labour Party would serve the world best, not by doing half-heartedly what they do with conviction, but by clarifying its own principles, and acting in accordance with them." (

Perhaps it is David, not Ed who is the Bennite candidate? ;-)