David Miliband was right to say in his New Statesman article last week that Labour needs “comradely and serious debate”.
He made a thoughtful contribution – perhaps too thoughtful, abstract and analytical when we probably need ammunition and a visceral call to arms rather than an overarching theory.
My problem is that I don’t agree with all his thoughts.
Roy Hattersley has already responded but as my position is a not identical to his I thought I’d give it a go.
I’ll take David’s points one by one:
First, the premise that there is a body of opinion or faction called “Reassurance Labour” is a bit of a debating trope. There isn’t, David’s just invented it as a straw man to attack. It looks as though this article may have been written before the New Year and Ed Balls and Ed Miliband delivering some hard truths on economic policy, because after that row it would be difficult to accuse anyone around the leadership of seeking to keep Labour in its comfort zone. To the extent that there ever was a “Reassurance Labour” I plead guilty that one of my motives for campaigning for Ed Miliband in the leadership election was that I feared that David and his team were complacent about the fragility of the Party. I was worried that they had a cavalier attitude to the union link and to the health of the party grassroots, and at a time when Labour was deeply traumatised by election defeat, the difficult choices we had made in power, and 16 years of Tony vs Gordon psychodrama, the patient needed a bit of chicken soup and TLC, not the political equivalent of brisk 10 mile runs and cold showers that I feared David heralded. I worry that many of our current leaders don’t have an intuitive feel for how to nurture, manage and grow Labour’s volunteer machine or its relationship with its affiliates because they haven’t personally been office holders in a CLP or union, or councillors, and this absence of a sense of what the Party in the country is like is present throughout David’s article. If a concern for the morale of Labour’s “Poor Bloody Infantry” in the CLPs makes me part of “Reassurance Labour”, so be it.
Regarding David’s specific proposals, he firstly says we need to be “reformers of the state and not just its defenders”. That would be fine if he meant that we should constantly reform public services to ensure they are of the highest standard. But at the end of this piece of his article he does the “reveal” of his agenda by saying it’s about a government which “mobilises people, whether as patients or parents or employees or citizens, to make choices and take decisions that reshape their own lives.” This is code for a revisiting of the “choice” agenda of late-period Blairism in public services which basically implies marketisation and a variation in standards (unless things are different, what’s the point in choice) and combined virtually no electoral resonance with the ability to massively alienate lots of public sector workers. It also presumes an electorate that want to be actively involved in running public services when the busyness of most people’s personal and work lives means they understandably usually just want to elect other people to do this for them. Most people don’t want to choose a school or a hospital, or take decisions about how they are run. They want to elect governments and councils that will ensure that their nearest school or hospital is so good that “choice” is irrelevant. I’m worried that David is stuck in a policy area, which he has tellingly put first in his list, which was an unpopular waste of vast amounts of ministerial time, energy and political capital when we were in power.
David’s second point is that “We need to be the champions of local political change rather than sceptics, not least because local government is going to be our area of greatest strength in the next few years.” As a local councillor I agree, but this has to mean devolving real powers to the one set of people who can legitimately exercise them, elected councillors, not the “bucket with a hole in it” concept of “double devolution” promoted by David at CLG and in this article, where you simultaneously force councils to cede control of previously democratically accountable services, developed through public investment, to unelected and unaccountable “community leaders”. This is a prescription for the tyranny of the activist and the loudest, who by their nature of having the spare time and articulacy to be activists are likely to be older and wealthier than the bulk of service users or residents. It’s also a prescription for removing party politics from the delivery of local services, which is an odd thing for a political party with self-belief about its ability to lead communities to propose. The missing layer David does not mention is devolution to regional government, which had we created it rather than gone for a logically flawed model of asymmetric devolution (where Scotland and Wales have different powers, and the English regions none) would have left us controlling swathes of public policy in our strongest parts of the country and would have conclusively answered the West Lothian question.
Next David says “We need to be clear how equality, and what kind of equality (including of what), services our notion of the good society.” I agreed with this bit of his article, but the tone of it is all a bit theoretical. For me, my notions of social justice – indeed the reason I am a Labour member – derive from raw anger about the low pay for hard work I saw my parents experience, and how much poverty, want and deprivation I see in the council ward I represent. We
shouldn’t need a theoretical “four-part scaffold” as described by David to define social justice – we should feel it in our guts when there is injustice. The language in David’s piece felt worryingly detached and would have benefited from some references to what he sees on the ground in South Shields and how this, rather than theory, guides him.
David’s point 4 is “We need a politics of economic growth, not just redistribution and regulation.” This again I agree with. In fact I’d give every spare penny we can find if we got into government to investing in manufacturing industry, because until we can grow the wealth creating bit of the economy, any other increases in public spending are unsustainable.
Point 5, “We need to resolve how to make our internationalism work for Britain”, avoids really saying anything other than some vagueness about reforming the EU. How about restating our commitment to NATO and to renewing our Trident strategic nuclear deterrent, so that we have a national security insurance policy in a dangerous world? How about saying which of the emerging world powers (one would hope the democratic ones) we should be building trading, geopolitical and military alliances with so that we have allies beyond the US and EU in what will become a multi-polar world? How about a defence of liberal interventionism, given the choices that need to be made soon about Iran and Syria?
Point 6 “We need to continue to modernise the party itself” is odd in that it is written after we have completed a comprehensive review of the Party through the Refounding Labour debate. David is to be commended for sticking with the Movement for Change project and bringing it closer to the party since his defeat in the leadership election. However, his advocacy of primaries and implied advocacy of mayors illustrate his lack of feel for the Party’s pulse. I’m personally relaxed about Mayors because I’ve been a councillor for 10 years in an authority with an Elected Mayor who has a great relationship with his Labour Group, but they are anathema to a very large number of the councillors we rely on to deliver election campaigns, and David’s article doesn’t show a flicker of recognition of this. As for primaries, I would be delighted if David could show me as an NEC member where the hundreds of thousands of pounds to run them are to be found in Labour’s empty coffers. I also believe that there is a contradiction between David’s concern about expanding the party and a proposal that would remove one of the few rights reserved to members, the right to select candidates, further dis-incentivising people from joining.
Point 7 is the bit I like best “We need to establish far more clearly what needs to be defended about Labour’s record in government, not just join the blanket Tory denigration.” I don’t think we’ll win the next election on our 1997-2010 record, elections are about the future offer, but I do believe there’s something insanely masochistic about not celebrating the huge achievements of what was a fantastic, solid, social democratic government.
At the tail end of the article there are some good points – this paragraph for instance:
“Our defeat in 2010 was disastrous, Labour’s second-worst in 70 years. We hold only 12 seats out of 210 in three southern regions outside London. Since then we have avoided the most obvious mistake of 1951 and 1979, namely disunity. That is very true, and strongly to Ed’s credit and that of the wider party.”
And also some total randomness, such as the concern that “the professions are under-represented in the Parliamentary Labour Party”. I don’t have my copy of the figures on composition of the PLP from “The British General Election of 2010” to hand but from memory there are rather a lot of lawyers, PR men, teachers and lecturers in the PLP, and the missing sociological component is the working class people we were set up to represent.
A better point is David’s defence of New Labour’s choices in 1994-1997 as being motivated by principle rather than electoral expediency. This is correct. I was an activist in this period and supported what Blair was doing because I believed in his policies. It was obviously a magnificent collateral benefit that so did such a large slice of the electorate that we won by a landslide, and this helped us persuade people in the Party centre-ground that they should go along with the project. But for the core of Blair’s support it was about doing what we believed in, and Blair himself was always more of an ideologue than a pragmatist, hence his honourable preparedness to back the Iraq War for moral reasons rather than take the more popular route of leaving it to the Americans.
My concern with David’s position when it comes to the wider electorate is that they don’t share his analysis that the central state is a bit of a busted flush. They want urgent answers to the tough lives they are living, whether because they are in poverty, in the squeezed middle, or just insecure about their jobs and living standards, which only a strong state can supply. Other actors, be they NGOs, co-ops, community groups or socially responsible businesses can tinker round the edges and achieve alleviation of people’s needs and fears on a micro level, but the kind of big, sweeping, fundamental changes that are needed to address the massive inequality and structurally weak economy we have in the UK can only be delivered by the state.
On the level of the Party, I am worried that David’s rejection of a core social democratic analysis about the role of the state in delivering equality risks dividing moderate opinion within the Party; reinforcing a narrative from the left that New Labour was alien, rather than an evolution of earlier revisionist thought stretching back through Crosland, Gaitskell, Bevin and Morrison; denigrates the contribution of Kinnock and Hattersley to making Labour sane, without which Blair could never have become Leader; and tries to harness Labour’s right to an outdated obsession with public service reform that is wrong, irrelevant in an era of cuts and so unpopular in the Party as to cede control of it to forces to our left, thereby throwing out the baby (all the genuinely electorally popular and grounded in reality aspects of Blairism on tax, crime and defence) with the think-tank inspired bathwater.