Next Labour is listening Labour: Extracts from David Miliband’s Progress Conference speech


We have had a serious rebuff at the General Election, and today I want to talk about the task in front of us.

Some of the most important statistics about the General Election are about the shift from 1997 to the present day. As we consider the task in front of us – the task of rebuilding a labour movement that is in tune with the needs and practices of the future – we need to learn from the past.

One thing we need to learn is about the role of organisations like Progress, who have been creative forces of ideas and activism during our time in Government. Amidst the discussion of which voters we have lost since 1997, there is one other thing we have lost, and we should celebrate it: we have lost the tag of being one of the least successful centre-left political parties in the world. After 1992, Labour seemed doomed not just to have been unsuccessful in the 20th century, but to be unable to envisage a future in the 21st. Yet we then won three elections on the trot; we became one of the most successful social democratic parties in the world. We did so not just by occupying the centre ground but by shifting it; by developing new ideas but also by developing ourselves as a political force; and we were most successful when we challenged conventional wisdom, whether on NHS investment and reform or civil partnerships or overseas aid or the windfall tax on the utilities.

Now we need to repair and renew. The leadership election is an opportunity for the party – to debate, to get in touch with the public, to recruit members and supporters to the party, to show that we are determined to remain an outward looking and future oriented party of the centre left.

A leadership election is of course about leadership. In the course of the campaign party members and levy payers will make their judgment about the leadership qualities of the different candidates. We need to elect a leader who can fire the imagination, unite different talents, be a credible Prime Minister.

A vital part of that is winning battle of ideas. Today I want to focus on two parts of that.

First, I think the public want to know whether the new generation of Labour leaders gets it about modern Britain. The truth about the General Election is that there was a nagging feeling amongst the public that we were no longer the party of the future. It’s a question of policy and politics:

– whether we have learned the right lessons of the economic crisis, not just that we need government to anticipate market failure and try to prevent it, but also that our economy needs to be rebalanced between financial services and other industries

– whether we have properly internalised that for all that government can be a force for good, its ability to command the confidence of the public is severely eroded when – as recently happened to a friend of mine – the attendants at a swimming pool say he cant bring in his three kids because he wont be able to look after them; instead of government being a force for empowerment it feels like a force for disempowerment

– whether we have understood the degree of alienation with the political system after the MPs expenses crisis, and whether we are able to respond with humility but also passion about the ability of politics to change people’s lives

– whether we have taken on board that issues of work-life balance, unequal pay between men and women, are central to modern life and politics, not peripheral to it

– whether we are ready to rebuild the welfare state on the basis of a new social contract, not just to tackle need but also to reward contribution and require conditions to be met

– whether we understand that issues of anti social behaviour were not a passing problem, but need ongoing and relentless focus, because they are what make communities worth living in or not.

These issues are a new threshold for modern political leadership. Get it and you are in the game; don’t get it and you won’t be heard.

The second set of issues are different. Not about the problems of Britain but about what we believe. Gordon Brown found his voice as a passionate advocate of fairness late in the campaign. But people thought it was authentic. We need to be a party that links values to policies every day in opposition and then in government.

I’ll tell what is authentic about my politics:

– I believe in tackling inequality. I learnt this not just from home, but at school, when people with as much potential and aptitude as me left school before they ever did their O Levels. They were called “Easter leavers”. They left to work or look after family members. That taught me about inequality. So when I became Minister for Schools I made it my job to tackle inequality. That is how the Building Schools for the Future programme was born: to get respect you have to give it. That is how every secondary school became a specialist school; because otherwise you have a two tier system. That is how we drove forward the Excellence in Cities programme, so that London went from having the worst education results in the country to being above average. And it is what motivated me to stand up for education reform – from Academies to Teach First – because the people who suffer the most from low expectations and the failure of reform are those at the bottom of the pile.

– I believe that inequality of power matters alongside inequalities of wealth and opportunity. That is why as Minister for Communities and Local Government I made it my business to argue not just for devolution from Whitehall to Town Hall, but from Town Hall to individuals and communities. If we want pluralism in our country we need to empower people to direct local services. Empowerment is our agenda and we should never let it go.

– I believe that we have responsibilities to future generations. That is why as Environment Secretary I fought to create the Climate Change Bill. I think it is the most radical piece of legislation we passed. I binds governments for the next forty years. It takes climate change out of the “environment” box and recognises that it needs to influence economic policy, industrial policy, energy policy, housing policy and even security policy.

– I believe in our obligation to stand up for people who we will never meet and whose names we don’t know because they are fellow human beings. Human rights are not western values; they should be universal. So when we stand up for a ceasefire in the Gaza War, or against war crimes in Sri Lanka, or for human rights in Iran, or for the rights of the Afghan people to live a life of their choosing that is no threat to us, we are living out our values.

Idealism is the lifeblood of the party. Not divorced from reality, but focussed on reality, which is too unequal, too insecure, and too unstable for the majority of people.

So the question for Labour is how to achieve this connection with the public and loyalty to our values. I think there is only one way: to recognise that the way we have been doing politics in government has made it more difficult not less to stay in touch with both the public and our values. And unless we change the way we do politics – starting with this campaign – we will not deserve to win.

I joined the Labour Party in the 1980s. It was a terrible decade for Britain and for Labour. We learnt lessons that lived on throughout our period in government – in fact outlived their usefulness. Nowhere more so than in the way we worked as a party.

In the 1980s debate was a code for civil war. So the result was a model of leadership based on discipline not dialogue. It was in some ways necessary; but it contained the seeds of its own destruction; a political party that is not a living breathing movement does not become a permanent party of government; it is on the road to opposition. And that is what happened to us.

We won election on May 1 1997; we stopped party renewal on May 2 1997.

So by 2010 we were left with an old model of party organisation out of touch with the modern needs for transparency, openness, pluralism, dialogue. We were disconnected from our voters but also from our members. And this is what has to change in a fundamental way. It is what I mean by a movement for change.

The term Labour Movement conjures up for me the Jarrow marchers. But in fact it should mean the newly elected councillors in Brent who I met on Thursday, getting ready not just to resist Government cuts but also to pioneer new ways of meeting needs. It means the party members I met in the Medway, fresh from a bad defeat, figuring out how to rebuild. It means the trade unionists I will address tonight in the TUC Northern Region, getting ready to campaign for training and pensions and family friendly rights.

So one of the biggest issues in this leadership campaign should be how we make the Labour Party a movement for change again. I have some ideas:

– we need to be open: so should look at free membership and other ways of getting people involved

– we need to be pluralistic: so should look at different ways of doing things in different parts of the country

– we should be engaged with the wider Labour family: so should engage our trade union levy payers

– we should be part of the community: so the voluntary sector, the local schools, the health provision is our concern

– and we should be campaigners for local change, using power where we have it and holding it to account where we don’t.

I want my leadership campaign to be a model for how I would lead the party. So I want your help: sign up at my website which will from next week use the best of social media to link people together to debate and discuss ideas; host a house meeting for people in your area who are interested in the campaign; follow the results of PLP meetings, open to the whole PLP, about the big policy issues and political lessons of the campaign; follow me on Twitter and talk to me on Twitter; get your CLP to hold regional hustings; or invite me to visit, because Next Labour is based on Listening Labour and that is what I am determined to do.

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