Saturday 11 June 2011

So, what would David Miliband have done differently?

The appearance of David Miliband leader’s speech which never was after his knife-edge defeat in the Labour leadership contest last Autumn gives the Guardian an intriguing contemporary political history scoop - all the better in being from 2010 rather than 2005, as with the Telegraph’s exclusive shock revelation that Ed Balls and Gordon Brown had wanted Tony Blair to make way as Prime Minister earlier.

Anybody and everybody can have their view on Blair v Brown, but Next Left has always tried to define the shape of the emerging field of comparative Milibandism. There may be rather more of it coming up soon, with the serialisation of the Ed Miliband biography by Medhi Hasan and James MacIntyre beginning in the Mail this Sunday. (It may be that the release of the text is connected to the fact that that book which will surely put the events of last summer and Autumn under the microscope).

I thought it was a very good speech - though I just can't believe the Guardian's account that the disappointed candidate recited it to his wife in the car on the way home. But, on the whole, the content of this speech perhaps weighs on the side of the hypothesis that differences between the brothers have often been exaggerated. Indeed, the David Miliband speech perhaps underlines why the more “ultra” elements of the post-Blairite group had reasons to worry about whether David Miliband was really one of them.

There is a cruel irony in that, given that the faction formerly known as Blairites can claim to have had a decisive influence on the knife-edge leadership contest. It was just unfortunate for the candidate that they wanted to help that this came in the form of noisy and counter-productive interventions that ultimately proved decisive in causing his defeat, helping to paint the candidate into a “Blairite” position which was something of a caricature of his moderately modernising centre-left social democratic views. As this blog wrote as the contest began last May, "the interesting thing about David Miliband's candidacy is that he is the so-called "Blairite" candidate who is not really a Blairite", but his campaign never did enough to establish that point before the old New Labour biographies came out at the wrong moment.

Most strikingly, his line “we live in a market economy but I don’t want to live in a market society” is taken from French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who made it his signature soundbite to differentiate his approach from a full throated embrace of the Third Way/Neue Mitte politics of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder. (It is still in form clearly a 'third way' approach, since the rhetorical device of triangulation does not determine what becomes crucial: which positions one chooses to pitch the triangulated tent between!)

That is certainly a line one could imagine Ed Miliband using. In 2010, it would have helped David Miliband to challenge the idea that chanting mantras of “bold reform” are always a test of modernisation and centrism, whatever the content of the reforms being adopted, and in particular to question the equation of reform with marketization. That is a sensible strategy for scrutinising the Coalition’s approach to universities and the NHS. But it also reflects why Tony Blair felt that the elder Miliband should not step up from Schools Minister to Education Secretary.

He was “pro-reform”, to the extent that such rhetoric has meaning, but felt that scrutiny of what the reforms were was perhaps missing from that late New Labour period.


The speech also suggests that David Miliband would not have had a different overall strategy on public spending and deficit reduction from that currently being pursued by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

As leader, David Milband would also have stuck to Alastair Darling’s spending plans, and challenged George Osborne for going too far and too fast.

George Osborne says we are in denial about the deficit. Because he wants us to be. So let's not be.

It is a test.

I profoundly believe the Tories are wrong in their economic judgment. As they push up unemployment and push down confidence, the pain will be severe and real ...

The issue is not Labour's policy; it is the Tory policy of adding to Labour's plans [£666] of spending cuts and tax increases for every man, woman and child in the country.

Don't try to blame us Mr Osborne. We had a clear plan for reducing the deficit. You chose to go a lot further, a lot faster. Your choice. Your cuts.

It is not us in denial Mr Osborne.

It is you in denial – about jobs, about growth, about the lives and livelihoods that depend on a growing economy.

You are in denial because no country can cut its deficit unless it grows its economy. You prattle on about Canada in the 1990s. But Canada has a 3,000 mile border with the US which at the time was going through the Clinton boom.

You have taken the biggest economic gamble in a generation….with other people's lives.

He would have made a good argument about the Office of Budget Responsibility – chiming with what this blog has previously argued about that.

What the Guardian sees as most newsworthy in David Miliband speech is the tone and style of his mea culpa over New Labour’s economic record.

So the speech would have maintained the previous policy – yet Miliband the Elder would have tried to place the emphasis on being vocal about what Labour got wrong about the economy, and chosen to take on the challenge about deficit reduction head on by being vocal about the importance of being able to answer the charge of “denial”.

On content, however, David Miliband’s answer is to turn the challenge around and charge George Osborne of being in denial.

In tone, Miliband takes great care to offer several heresies against Brownism.

(The proposed attack on the apparent Brown claim to have abolished the economic cycle was made, immediately after the leadership election, by Ed Miliband, as the Guardian reported on September 28th last year - "And when you saw jobs disappear and economic insecurity undermined, I understand your anger at a Labour government that claimed it could end boom and bust" - which perhaps nuances the claim in today's report of a stark difference between the two speeches).

Yet, in content, this is, in essence, similar to Ed Balls’ attempts to get up the phrase “growth denier”.

While I am not sure that the line that “the answer to the mean state is the lean state” quite comes off rhetorically, it is essentially an application of the Clinton/Gore era ‘Reinventing Government’ agenda to more difficult times of austerity, and here being used to promote both the former (Darling) and current (Miliband E) Labour party policy rather than to harden it.

There is a defence of incurring the deficit - "explain that it was not immoral to incur the vast bulk of the deficit to prevent recession turning into Depression; it was necessary; to protect your savings and rescue the economy. And when the history books are written people will admit Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling did lead the world".

Words and symbols matter in politics as well as policies.

It is about what is heard as well as what is said. And David Miliband's speech is effective in being clear that some concessions need to be made - because clearly something very important went wrong - but careful about what the concessions are.

This debate is really about the balance to be struck between the need for Labour to acknowledge mistakes and the pressure to join and endorse a blanket denigration of Labour’s record in office.

There are differences too. Again, sometimes the symbolism as well as the policy matters. David Miliband would not have emulated what his brother said to try to draw a line under the issue of Iraq, because he doesn't take the same view of the war itself, and would have focused instead on a bipartisan approach to Afghanistan had he won the leadership. Nevertheless, the elder Miliband (who was Schools Minister, outside the Cabinet, not Foreign Secretary, in 2003) has gone further in comments about the lessons of Iraq this year than he did during the contest.

David Miliband’s speech suggests that he believes that Labour” wins from a centre-left position” – a very welcome statement from ex-PM Tony Blair in his Times interview last week. I can certainly imagine David Miliband voicing the argument, as Ed Miliband did in his speech at Progress recently, that Labour can not become a party of the status quo and “there is no alternative”.

The elder Miliband would also clearly reject the view that Labour should endorse entirely and in full George Osborne’s economic and deficit reduction strategy (facilitating charges of hypocrisy against the party whenever they then challenge specific decisions).

The noisily provocative blogger Dan Hodges’ latest attempt to clang dustbin lids is to adopt the trope of declaring anybody who doesn’t agree with him about this and everything else to be a “flat earther”.

He has given notice too that we can all now rely on Hodges to pop up in the popular prints by predicting seven out of the next two leadership challenges: he has already scheduled the first abortive attempt for May 2012. (It is becoming clear that a key danger for any actually existing plotters in future will be how they can prevent Hodges wrecking the plan with a breathless account before the plot itself has had any time to take shape).

But I am not sure I can identify anybody except Galileo Hodges and former Labour party general secretary Peter Watt who they would place outside their "non-flat earth” faction.

For it seems pretty clear that David Miliband’s draft speech means that he too would count as a “flat earther” for Galileo Hodges. (If the non flat earthers do want a candidate in a future leadership contest, they may well have to try to secure the defection of David Laws. C'est magnifique, but it isn't really politics).

Hodges blogging is very often an entertainment but I can’t quite see where he acquired the credentials to pose as the Galileo of the Labour blogosphere.

His declaration that “David Miliband has won” – though it would have helped motivate the speech-writing team to get on with polishing this final draft - was surely a classic of the flat earth genre. (Easy with hindsight. I can point to our argument in the comments thread of the post before the result, where I took the boringly sensiblist view that it was too close to definitively call, as a caveat to my own projection that Ed M may have nicked it by a whisker).

Was that the moment that Dan Hodges fell over the edge?


T.N.T. said...

A brilliant post as so often, Sunder - boy are we gonna miss you when you leave Next Left.

David Miliband must still be kicking himself. In retrospect all he had to do when Blair and Mandelson made their thinly veiled endorsements in early September was to gently distance himself from the hard right of the Labour party - but (for whatever reason) he chose not to. I still haven't worked out why that was. Perhaps he didn't want to alienate right-wing Labour activists and MPs - but who else would they have voted for? He had the right sown up.

In the end, David's campaign was pretty awful - he started with all the advantages and just threw it away. After the election I spoke to members of Ed Miliband's team who couldn't believe their man had won.

But to me, that says something about the relative strengths of the 2 candidates in an election fight. David Miliband is a very able politician but at the end of the day he has had 2 chances to be leader of the Labour party - the abortive coup of 2009 and then the leadership election of 2010 - and lost them both. Ed Miliband had one half-chance to become leader and grabbed it with both hands. I know who I'd prefer in the cut & thrust of what is bound to be a very bruising general election campaign next time round. Ed M has the killer instinct - much more so than Brown (who never fought a leadership campaign) or Balls (who did, and lost badly).

Poor Dan Hodges... more Garibaldi than Galileo, I fear.

Gobanian said...

Hal is right. It's remarkable that the Blairites became so wedded to their ideological foibles that they forgot the original idea was to win elections.
They thought all they had to do was write the victory speech. Any candidate for Labour leader needed a mini "Clause 4 Moment" to show that they weren't just offering more of the same. Ed M got that by saying he thought the government was wrong on Iraq. David M didn't and didnt't even try to get one.
Instead he kept repeating the ultra-Blairite mantra about "not retreating into our comfort zone." But saying that actually WAS the comfort zone for the Blairites. It excused them from having to argue issues on merit.
It's too soon to say if Ed M has or can get the public presence needed to be a success. He's obviously going to face active disloyalty from some Blairites who look on the Labour Party as their private property. David Cameron didn't take any nonsense from the Tebbits of this world when they tried to underminbe him. Ed M would be wise to be equally robust.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. You are evidently a well read and learned gent but, what tosh!
To argue that somehow David was a Blairite and Ed wasn't is nonsense. They were and are Blairite's in the same form as the Labour party is still a Blair machine. There is no alternative to what the coalition is doing. Ed argues, both of them, that the cuts are too deep and too fast. This is not the point! There should be no cuts. If anything were true, there should be greater public borrowing to increase work opportunities for the real people of this country. Growth alone should be the motivating factor for reducing the 'deficit' - a perspective neither brother had the Ball's (excuse the pun) to proffer.
Labour, sadly, will be re-elected next election, because, in reality, no one saw this chimera emerging from the last election. Lib-Dem voters, many who were Labour voters, wanted to reduce the market affect on society.The voters are the real socialists! Yet again they are given Hobson's Choice and think tanks, such as yours haven't yet fathomed that 'flat Earthing' is what the populace know to be in fact truth. If the lies that we are broke, a basket case and whatever else is preached to force through a neo-con agenda, are allowed to be voiced without a truly socialist alternative, then this will lead to a Tory landslide in the future. Ed is the leader, not my choice and probably not the majorities, bearing in mind the Union block vote, that got him elected. The fact is, he's there and now has to stand for his true beliefs and not what he thinks will get him elected, that road leads to real flat earthing. An ideology based on the 'free market' that doesn't and can't work for the majority.

Sue Marsh said...

Oh how many times I argued this during the leadership campaign. Oh how I looked for signs of this supposed Blairism.

How I read and re-read the Keir Hardy speech, mystified by what I saw as a rather radical left wing agenda dressed up in the "Third Way"

He rarely made a speech without mentioning "mutuals" and "co-operatives" and I came to believe that the kind of radical public sector reform he wanted would have put them much more in the hands of those working in them and running them.

Did anyone listen? Did I manage to convince a single person? Nope. All too entrenched in their own factions and bickering.

Still, Too late now. Ed won, he's leader, he gets to decide which vision will carry Lab and the country forward, so I don't really see the point of articles like these.

Sue Marsh said...

Sorry, that sounded a bit terse at the end, I just meant it's probably better to focus on supporting Ed now than writing about what could have been.

Martin said...

I posted this on the New Statesman blog, but their comments system is flaky:

"But Sunder Katwala is surely right to argue that there's nothing here to suggest that David Miliband would have taken a different course on deficit reduction to that subsequently adopted by his brother and Ed Balls."

I take Katwala to be saying that the policy is the same but the tone and presentation is different.

But as he also says: "Words and symbols matter in politics as well as policies".

In those terms, it's a vast difference. This speech suggests that David M would have played the politics and the rhetoric a lot more carefully and cleverly than his brother.

The plan for Alistair Darling to head an all-party commission into public spending was smart politics. In policy and content terms, it meant nothing. In terms of disarming the Tory "deficit denial" stuff, it meant a lot.

The speech says, "We're not irresponsible, we don't want spending to get out of control, we take this seriously". All that is rhetoric, politics, but it matters a great deal. That is what Labour now has to say before it says anything else - that's David M does in his speech.

It's this that gives David M the space to make the pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-spending points in his speech. You can only argue for that stuff after you've earned people's trust.

While the policy is the same, the politics is entirely different. It's a lot more clever and nimble than the path pursued by his brother. That's why David Miliband is the better politician. There's a basic subtlety to his position that is lacking in his brother's.

There is very little room for maneouvre over the deficit, in terms of policy. Everyone would be forced to cut. This is about making the right noises to the voters.

Briar said...

"Everyone would be forced to cut." Forced by whom. There is a cogent argument that dismisses the deficit as a political battering ram, carted in by the right (and that means the bliarites too) as a means of ending the three and a half decade long seige on the welfare state started by Thatcher. Those who trumpet the all-important issue of the deficit ignore some pretty powerful points, not least the fact that the public services use public money to serve the public. Cutting them betrays the public. Neither Miliband seems to ahve grasped the fact that the public wants to be led by people who represent their interests, not the interests of the ruling elite. The centre won't achieve that - the left will. Time for Ed to get the message and ditch bliarism.