“We’ve got to have a distinct offer on community, the economy and democracy”: The David Miliband interview

July 9, 2010 1:20 pm


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David MilibandDavid Miliband is the shadow foreign secretary and a candidate in the Labour leadership election. He met Alex Smith in his office on Thursday, July 8th, 2010.

You’re due to give the Keir Hardie lecture in Wales, about learning from Labour’s history, from the failures and the weaknesses of the Labour Party as well as its strengths. Tell me more about the intentions of the speech…
The purpose of the speech is to try to use our history to understand where we are now and where we need to go in the future. It’s about the strengths that we inherited – notably being separate from the Liberal Party, which is rather an important fact, given current events. What I say is that Hardie’s was an ethical socialism, which is now reflected in our Clause IV; that Hardie rejected the Liberal Party but didn’t reject liberal values like democracy and civil liberties; that Labour values are not abstract values, but rather they are built on relationships and qualities like solidarity, where we share our fate, and reciprocity, which combines equality and freedom; and I say that the Labour movement was a great moral teacher, so it wasn’t just that we had practical values, but we had a movement that passed them on from generation to generation. It’s because of that combination of realistic radicalism on the one hand, and the movement on the other, that you can see great successes, such as the National Health Service or some of the things we did after 1997.

Such as education, which you spoke about in detail last week. I disagreed with the target that 50% of people should go to university. You’ve called for 60% of our children to go to university. This is at a time when Higher Education funding is already in deep crisis, where 14% of graduates are leaving university and straight into unemployment…
Well, there’s a global recession going on.

OK, but is this an educational goal, or an economic goal, to get 60% in – what about the strength of and need for vocational training and apprenticeships?
That’s what I said in my speech, that the whole purpose of the Tomlinson reforms was to create new space at universities for actually what we have already done, which is 260,000 apprenticeships. This isn’t about saying that the best thing would be for 100% of people to go to university. But it is saying that artificially capping the number of people who can go to university is wrong. Remember there’s a 22% increase in the number of people applying to university this year – so people do want to go, despite all the talk about the off-putting nature of the system. And the idea we’re a country that says, ‘you qualify for university but you can’t go, even though you want to’ is quite wrong. That’s why I say that it depends on the sort of economy you want Britain to be, because by 2025 the South Koreas of this world, and some European countries, will be up at 60%. So I would defend the 50% target, I think it would be crazy for us to throw it away. Does that mean the only path to follow is to go to university? No, absolutely not.

I read a tweet of yours recently that said you thought your biggest political mistake was not finishing that banana before stepping out in front of the cameras. Wasn’t voting for and supporting the war in Iraq your biggest political mistake?
No, I don’t think so, because I made a judgement on the basis of the information that was provided, and the information was overwhelming and clear. I don’t think it’s in good taste to compare a war in which tens of thousands of people lost their lives with a photo, so I’m not going to do that. But in answer to your question was that my biggest political mistake: no, because it was a judgement based on the information that was available, not just to me, but right around the world.

But many people right around the world, and indeed in this country, marched against the war in Iraq based on the information that was presented. Lots of Labour MPs voted against the war in Iraq based on the evidence that they saw at the time.
I respect people like John Denham, who took their own principled decision, and Robin as well – the late Robin Cook – but I made a different judgement and took a different decision. That’s something that reasonable people can disagree about.

Let’s move onto the leadership and the campaign. How do you think it’s going?
Very well.

Are you enjoying it?
Yes, I am. The energy and the commitment that’s being shown around the country is a very, very good contrast to the boredom that parts of media-land are exhibiting in respect of the campaigns. I think that although the hustings themselves are quite a restrictive format, the campaign meetings and other events that are happening are much more open and involve people who support me and people who don’t support me as well as people who vote Labour and people who don’t vote Labour. Those events have a real spirit about them, they’re a proper conversation.

Would you prefer it if there weren’t so many hustings?
I think 53 hustings is a very large number. I don’t want to give any suggestion that somehow I don’t want to meet the people who are coming, because it’s striking that in this leadership election, every hustings is oversubscribed, and that’s a good thing. I think the number of hustings may be in inverse proportion to the media’s willingness to cover them – although not the regional media, to be fair.

Last week, Deborah Mattinson said at her book launch that Labour would have done better – even won – had Gordon Brown not been leader of the party at the time of the general election. Why, when it was so clear from the polls over six months or a year before the election, when the opportunities were there, in June 2009 or January 2010, did you decide not to oppose Gordon’s leadership, when that might have made Labour a more viable electoral alternative?
I don’t accept that the opportunities were there. I think there was a settled will at the top of the party that Gordon should lead us into the election. I didn’t want to make a bad situation worse.

But there wasn’t a settled will that Gordon should stay at the top of the party in 2009, when people were leaving the cabinet…
Again, when James Purnell left, I didn’t want to make a bad situation worse. To have lost two cabinet ministers would have been worse than to have lost one – it would simply have damaged the government, damaged the party and damaged the country. I think anyone who is in a senior position in the party has got to think about the position of the party and the position of the country. I don’t think anyone would have benefited from a second Kamikaze pilot.

The Electoral Commission shows that your campaign has raised £185,000, which was an impressive haul over the first month. You’ve evidently got a well-oiled machine, with secondments, about 30-odd members of staff – is that right?
I think that includes people who are volunteering.

So how big is your full time paid team?
I don’t know, but certainly not 30.

But you’ve got a big, professional campaign team. Considering those things and considering that from a standing start other campaigns have raised much less than you…
We don’t know how much they’ve raised in the last month…

We don’t – but you raised ten times more than the others in the first month. Considering that disparity, why do you think you’ve been unable to break through and run away from the rest of the field, in terms of dominating the narrative of the debate, in terms of the number of CLPs nominating you over other candidates, in terms of the number of MPs and MEPs nominating?
Well, I was very honoured by the number of MPs who supported me, not least because myself and quite a large number of my other supporters supported other candidates, to make sure that the podium was not as small as it might have been.

Do you worry that they’ll all come back?
Well, I’ll certainly be voting for myself if that’s what you’re asking! I think people took seriously what I said about wanting a wider field. That’s why we supported more candidates. And in answer to your question, I think the other thing is that the Labour Party hasn’t yet had enough debate. We’ve got a wide range of opinion on the platform, and a range of talented candidates – that’s a good thing. And in a five horse race, it would be odd if one of them had knocked everyone else out before the race had started. So I think the party is looking at everybody, and that that’s a good thing, because we haven’t had a leadership contest – a real one – for quite a long time. So I think people are having a serious look at all the candidates. And they’ve certainly got the time to do it.

A big part of your campaign is about making the party a “movement for change, and you’re training up to 1,000 community organisers. What is a movement for change, what do you hope it can do?
I went to a house meeting this morning in Ealing, and the movement for change in Ealing is going to argue for, campaign for and recruit more school governors, for example. It’s going to take on noise from pubs in residential areas. It’s going to look at why local businesses offer so few internships to those who have come out of Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Those are just three things that came out of the house meeting today. The argument is that the Labour Party should be the ally of those causes that matter in the community, of the concerns of citizens. I think we will only be strong as an electoral machine if we are effective as a movement.

Which skills do individuals need to bring to the table to be a good community organiser?
There’s only one thing you need…

Motivation. If you want to make a difference, you can. We’re not asking people to go on a PhD course in community organising. We’re giving people tools that they can use to turn their motivation into change. I think that’s an important part – in fact it’s the first part – of turning ourselves into an election-winning machine: to recognise that pulling up the shutters, which too often has happened recently, is actually an explanation for some of our problems. What happened was that some of the weaknesses that emerged in our second term in government led to this debate about renewal. That renewal was right and we all supported it, but it didn’t happen, for a number of reasons. So some of the weaknesses that were inherited weren’t addressed, and some of the strengths that we had – strategic direction, community as an organising principle, action on crime and anti-social behaviour, for example – we lost as Labour assets. Now, why does this need a historical dimension? Because we need to look at the greatest difficulties for Labour over its hundred years in order to improve. So, firstly, the absence of a unifying credo. It’s good that we stretch from Methodism to Marxism, but not if that means we don’t have a unifying credo. Secondly, struggles in respect of the question: ‘what is our political economy?’. In a way, the debates about nationalisation in the forties were part of that. And thirdly, the streak of government as problem solver – the Fabian paternalism – means that we didn’t conceive the role of government properly. Those three problems aren’t always the dominant problems, but our strengths have to outweigh our weaknesses if we are to win. By the 2010 election, our weaknesses outweighed our strengths.

Why did that happen? It’s not just the passage of time…
No, what I’m saying in this speech is that the process of renewal did not open up the party in the way that it needed to.

So the movement became tired, the government was tired, the party was tired…?
I don’t think it was tired. What we saw in the election was energy, determination, experience.

Was that part of the renewal you’re talking about?
Yes, but I don’t think we can claim victory yet. I think that the fact that 25,000 people have joined the party since the general election is evidence of what’s possible. And seats like Birmingham Edgbaston show what’s possible. So renewal is not impossible. But we did spend a lot of time as a government in crisis management, not in renewal.

I would say a movement for change of sorts already exists. The Labour Party is the parliamentary arm of that movement, of the wider progressive and labour movement, of NGOs, and green organisations, of the school governors that you’ve already mentioned. So can you turn the Labour Party, the political arm of a much wider and less controllable beast, itself into a movement?
Well, you say the green groups are part of the labour movement, but that’s not how they think of themselves, and some of them don’t think that we’re always their allies. That’s why I say we’ve got to build a movement for change, that the Labour Party needs to be an ally of movements for change in the localities and that we will be stronger as a result in local elections and national elections and European elections. I sense a great feeling of fragmentation amongst people locally; I don’t sense that people feel part of a great movement. So actually the bringing together of civil and social movements – green and otherwise – is an important thing. If the Labour Party can be the catalyst for that, without controlling it, that’s an important part of how we should conceive our politics. It’s interesting that you fell into saying that we’re just an electoral machine, or a political party, because we’re certainly not just a Westminster party. The fact that we’ve got 400 more councillors than we did before May 6th says something about the way this party is organised and ready to find new sources of energy and new ways of living out our values. Now, we’ve got a massive job to do in setting out a forward policy agenda, but that agenda needs to begin to correct our weaknesses. So we’ve got to be a party with a distinct offer for the political economy, we’ve got to be a party that reclaims notions of community, we’ve got to reclaim ground – whether it be on housing or crime or immigration – and we’ve got to be a party that sees democracy as our ally, both internally and in the country at large. The Tories are going to give political reform a bad name with this AV referendum. As it happens, I support AV, but that’s beside the point. They’re going to give it a bad name because people will say: ‘there’s all this arguing, but how much do things really change?’ We need to sort out parliament, I’ve always said that – but that means the Commons and the Lords together.

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