David Miliband’s Keir Hardie lecture — full speech

Alex Smith

By Alex Smith / @alexsmith1982

This evening, David Miliband has given the Keir Hardie lecture at Mountain Ash, Cynon Valley, in Merthyr Tydfil, Hardie’s old constituency town. Read the full speech below, and my interview with David published earlier today. Jon Cruddas has called it tonight the “most important speech by a Labour politician for many years”.

You have done me a great honour by inviting me to give the Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture. I want to repay that honour by talking tonight about how we shape a better future for our country, learning lessons from the past of our party.

It is a special pleasure to be here in Mountain Ash, surrounded by the very communities that Keir Hardie represented as a Member of Parliament in the early years of the last century. Also to be in Wales, where Labour action and thought have so often provided the spirit of hope and inspiration for our movement. I want to pay a special tribute to Ann Clwyd for her dedication and commitment to the people of this constituency – which she serves today in exactly those best traditions of Keir Hardie that I want to talk about this evening.

We meet at a difficult and serious time. A time of lost hopes and lost power, of broken dreams and impending nightmares. We confront a government weak in principle but sure of purpose. And be under no illusion as to what that purpose is: to broker a centre right consensus in Britain, all the while claiming to be “progressive”, which will exclude Labour from government for a long time, and hurt those most in need in our country. The Cameron vision must not to be underestimated. It is to recreate in the twenty-first century the same coalition that dominated the twentieth century, that between economic liberals and partisan Conservatives. Working people left out, Labour kept out. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

All over Britain today, teachers and pupils are dreading the news that their school will not be rebuilt; care assistants are wondering if their job is safe; pensioners are concerned about cuts in police numbers; and businesspeople are asking whether ideology has triumphed over common sense in the drive for austerity. It is the task of anyone who wishes to be Labour leader, and of our Movement as a whole, to understand how we find ourselves in this position, and to break its dynamics and generate a different outcome. That is what this leadership election should be about. It must have an honest reckoning of the last thirteen years, but it is about more than the lessons of 13 years in power.

We achieved great things and won great victories in government. I think we were insufficiently proud of our record during the election; but we lost the trust of the people and ceased to be the repository of their hopes for a better tomorrow. For that some blame attaches to the lack of humility about our mistakes. To redeem the promise of Labour politics we need the renewal that has been too long postponed. Our inspiration can come from the past; our focus must be on the future; because our task is not to debate a better yesterday, but to build a better tomorrow.

There is no better place to start that process than with the life and teaching of Keir Hardie, whose shadow falls across anyone aspiring to be the Leader of the Labour Party. He was the first and his influence has flowed through every generation of Party leaders, each finding inspiration in different aspects of his life and leadership. I am no different to them, and in my reflection I am aware of two perils that could deaden his vitality to us now.

The first is nostalgia and the temptation to view his life and times as not simply better than our own, but to ignore the poverty, the exploitation, the insanitary housing, the illiteracy, the dangerous pits, the precariousness of the lives of working people at that time. Without that understanding, the genuine heroism of Hardie’s achievement in organising and leading a movement that stood at odds with the prevailing beliefs, and realities, of the time would be diminished. By disregarding the real progress that has been made, in freedom, in knowledge, in technology, in health care, in education, in politics, we undermine our understanding of how politics can shape a better world and of our real achievements in redistributing power.

The second peril is a superficial modernist contempt for the achievements of our forebears in perilous circumstances. It was not necessary to dispossess the peasantry through enclosures in order to improve agricultural efficiency. The alternative view – that it was – is indifferent to the sense of loss, of grief, of the disruption that change can bring. This is the loss of connection to people and places, to crafts and congregations, which is so often dismissed as the price we pay for progress.

The ‘third way’ that Hardie steered, between a nostalgia that is hopeless, and a contemptuous modernism, which is reprehensible, provided a very strong orientation for our Party which is a great strength to us now.

Keir Hardie said that the definition of modernisation in which unregulated markets set the price and the conditions of labour, of land, of food and of housing was wrong. He spent his entire adult life arguing and organising for the truth that human beings and nature are not commodities and that democratic politics was the way that we act together to protect our humanity. This did not make him a Luddite. It gave him an ethical core upon which to judge proposals for change. This is relevant to our times.

In 1994 we rewrote clause IV of our constitution. But we did not substitute one policy prescription for another; we changed a time bound commitment to one way of organising our society, or rather our economy, to a timeless commitment to a set of ethical principles. The new clause IV explicitly drew upon Hardie’s ethical socialism, and stated that by our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. At the same time Hardie fiercely defended freedom of religion, of association and of expression. Hardie was liberal and communitarian; above all he was Labour, committed to democracy and civil liberties, faith and citizenship. Keir Hardie was that most precious of founders, a realistic radical who built coalitions towards a common goal, clearly understood, that human values should rule, not those of the market or of an Imperial state that ruled in the interests of owners alone.

Labour values are not simply abstract universal values like freedom or equality. Distinctive labour values are built on relationships, in practices that strengthen an ethical life. Practices like solidarity, where we actively share our fate with other people. Reciprocity, which combines equality and freedom. Mutuality, where we share the benefits and burdens of association. These are the forms of the Labour movement, the mutual societies, the co-operatives and the unions – whose strength continues in parts of Wales and elsewhere today. It was built on ethical relationships that were forged between people through common action. This is also the importance of Hardie. The values were embedded in the movement. Hardie was not a mechanical reformer who tried to bring about change through external control. He was a moral reformer who understood that you cannot create virtuous people by bureaucratic methods.

The Labour Movement itself was a great moral teacher. That was the moral importance of organisation for Hardie, it was the way that working people built a shared culture built upon Labour values, which were not exclusively individual, but were concerned with the ethics of a common life, of a democratic politics. As I will argue later, we need to take active steps to restore the primacy of reciprocity, solidarity and mutuality as core labour practices as they are the foundation of a good society.

In that understanding lay Hardie’s greatest act of political strategy – to reject incorporation into the Liberal Party and seek an independent movement, based upon its own values and practices, and pursuing a common good. Why did Hardie refuse an alliance with the Liberals? Why did he insist that Labour had to be an independent party? It was not because he rejected the great causes of liberty – of freedom of the individual – but because he considered it vital that when the national interest is considered, the interests of working people are considered to be part of that. So that those who were then exploited and excluded could take their rightful place in the body politic and in the governance of our nation.

Hardie said, repeatedly, that although there were many things that we can agree on with liberals, when it came to the conflict between capital and labour, between the banks and the real economy, they would always side with the Conservatives. He didn’t have a crystal ball, but he would have predicted that Nick Clegg would be busy defending a Conservative Budget over 100 years after he was elected MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare.

We must retain a strong connection with that tradition of social liberalism that recognises that liberty and solidarity are two sides of the same coin, while being vigilant in opposing that form of economic liberalism that rules the world in the interests of the richest. Hardie was put under a great deal of pressure to merge with the Liberal Party, but he resolutely pursued and established the integrity of the Labour interest. And we are reminded in our time how right he was to do that.

Here, in this place that Hardie represented, was the cradle of a beautiful and strong child, and Labour achieved unique and great things. The extension of the vote, rights for women, the raising of the school leaving age, the National Health Service, decolonisation, the foundation of the UN, the Green Belt, and in our time the minimum wage, equal rights, devolution to Scotland and Wales, resolution in Northern Ireland. We were at the heart of all that, campaigning, making friends and alliances but always strengthening Labour values in the governance of our country. These are values that you still live by today and we need them more than ever.

We were never a revolutionary or violent party. We have always pursued the common good and were prepared to compromise. But in order to compromise you have to be organised and know your interests. To act together sure in the belief that human beings and nature are not commodities to be bought and sold at the best price. Neither are we units of provision to be effectively administered by the State. The Labour Party alone understood the peril posed to the working people of our country by an unregulated market and an interfering state, a system which banned trade unions and imposed the Poor Laws.

Hardie was a socialist not a statist. The Independent Labour Party was self-organised. It brought together the co-operative movement, the building societies, the trade unions, all shades of faith communities into a broad based alliance for the common good. In that I am also inspired by Hardie’s example. I don’t wish to simply be leader of the Labour Party. I seek to renew the Labour Movement – in idea and in organisation. Building relationships and a common life through common action for the common good in communities across the country. That is why part of my leadership campaign is the drive to train 1000 community leaders around the country – whether they vote for me or not.

Hardie helped build a transformational movement in hard times, and we need to reconnect with that mission and recognise the importance of the Labour tradition as a means through which we protect each other from the market storms that are upon us once more. For that we will have to relearn the lessons Hardie taught us about courage, patience and organisation.

In our foundation we find our greatest strengths. The anger at injustice that led to real changes in the life of our people. The ability to bridge divides, trust each other and honour our common vulnerability that led to the establishment of the NHS. Our commitment to the equal status of each citizen and their capacity to live their life from within has led to Labour being at the forefront of the fight for civil liberties, religious freedom, gender and sexual equality. Labour was built in partnership with the trade union movement, who more than any other institution resisted the turning of workers into commodities, and the renewal of that purpose is as necessary now, in an era of volatile globalisation, as it ever was.

But our strengths are not only to be nurtured because they are good but also because they are the way that we confront our weaknesses. If we do not address them, we will not serve the people as we should. The number of seats we won on 6 May concealed the decline in our support. This is a serious and historic moment and the choice we make now will define our possibilities for a generation.

What are the historic weaknesses that compete with our great strengths?

First a shared creed that is too often undefined, an ideology that can unite our movement. In the good times it doesn’t matter so much. In fact it can be a strength. Labour is a broad church – socialist and social democrats, Methodists and Marxists, idealists and revisionists. But when historic choices need to be made it can be a weakness. R. H. Tawney’s essay, The Choice Before the Labour Party, written as a response to the 1931 election defeat, bears close reading today. Tawney rests his argument on the idea that Labour lacked a creed that could unite the party in sustained democratic action. Tawney’s definition of that creed is simplicity itself. He wrote that it is not based on ‘transcendental doctrines nor rigid formulae but a common view of the life proper to human beings, and of the steps required at any moment more nearly to attain it’.

A life proper to human beings. He argues Labour lost its strategic power to engage opponents and build alliances, to prioritise, because it lacked a cause. He argued that Labour was defeated ‘Because, when it ought to have called people to a long and arduous struggle, it too often did the opposite. It courted them with hopes of cheaply won benefits, and, if it did not despise them, sometimes addressed them as though it did. It demanded too little and offered too much.’

In 2008 and 2009, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling did not make the mistakes of Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden. They made the correct technical calls. Our savings were protected. But I believe in reciprocity all the way up, and all the way down. And we did not summon the moral power of shared responsibility to supplement the mechanical power to print money of the Bank of England. That is how solidarity is strengthened, not from the centre alone, but by a mutual responsibility for each others’ fate. Yet that is not a spirit that we drew on during the economic crisis, the greatest peacetime challenge to our country. And so voters, many of them our voters, spent the election wondering whose side we were really on. And that’s no way to win an electoral war.

The second weakness relates to this. There is an elitist streak of old-school Fabianism in our history that was too hands on with the state and too hands off with the market. I say Fabian because the Webbs did love central planning – very different from the democratic, plural Fabian Society of today. And New Labour suffered from this too. A kind of paternalist authoritarianism that manifests itself in big things and in small. In devolving power to Wales and then trying to fix who its leader should be. In my friend being told that a father could not take three children with him to the swimming pool. In a preference for procedure and policy over politics. We renewed schools and hospitals throughout the land, we improved public services but people felt like consumers and not partners in the services they received. We talked about ‘we’ but it meant us not them, so the workforce often felt neglected and citizens the same; the drive for managerial efficiency became seen as managerial arrogance.

The third confusion is about economic growth. In the last twenty years Labour has gone from the prawn cocktail offensive under John Smith to a love in with financial markets to an election campaign in which not a single business would support our tax policy. Our lack of distinction between the proceeds of financial capital, which was often concerned with its short term multiplication not its long term investment, and manufacturing capital, which was embedded in the real economy, led to a real lack in private sector growth throughout the country. A lack of innovation and initiative, a lack of partnerships and prosperity. We did not sufficiently recapitalise the regions. We did not intensify the redistribution of power. We saved the City of London but we did not reform it.

Under Mrs Thatcher the public benefits of North Sea Oil were used for tax cuts – often to benefit the richest. The Norwegians used theirs to build a sovereign wealth fund. But we did not learn the lesson. New Labour changed the direction of travel from the Conservative years but did not change the motor, which remained the financial services sector. The benefits were not distributed to the wealthiest in society, as under Mrs Thatcher and Nigel Lawson. We helped the poorest and those on modest incomes. But we need a model of economic growth that is right for our time. We need capital. Outside the south-east and the London magnet, here in Wales but also in my constituency of South Shields, there was not enough capitalism. The banks received our money in the bail our but have not re-invested it in our country. And now there is a Conservative government confused on the banks, hard on the poor and threatening to growth. It’s serious.

We have to say that by the time of the last election ideological uncertainty, administrative methods and a recession that threatened real depression did for us. But it was deeper. We lost the trust of the people and in a democracy that’s a very big problem. In the thirteen years of our government we lost more than four million votes and 180 seats. This is an issue we must address and honestly assess.

I agreed completely with Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister in 2007, that we needed renewal. I supported and voted for him. I agreed that we needed greater moral seriousness and less indifference to the excesses of a celebrity drenched culture. I agreed with him when he said that we needed greater coherence as a government, particularly in relation to child poverty and equality. I agreed with him on the importance of party reform and a meaningful internationalism that would be part of a unified government strategy. I agreed that we needed a civic morality to champion civility when confronting a widespread indifference to others.

But, it didn’t happen.

It was not just more of the same. Far from correcting them failings – tactics, spin, high-handedness – intensified; and we lost many of our strengths – optimism born of clear strategy, bold plans for change and reform, a compelling articulation of aspiration and hope. We did not succeed in renewing ourselves in office; and the roots of that failure were deep not recent, about procedure and openness, or lack of it, as much as policy. That is a political fact and now words are cheap but the stakes are high.

So here is established the task for Labour today.

* To reconceive our notion of fairness. In our concern with meeting peoples’ needs we seemed to sever welfare from desert and this led people to think that their taxes were being wasted, that they were being used. When we said fairness, people thought it was anything but. What emerged as a tribute to solidarity, the welfare state, turned into a bitter division. Many of the ‘hard working families’ we wished to appeal to did not view us as their party. We achieved great things but we did not bring people with us, and our motivation appeared abstract and remote.

* To build our own story of political economy that embraces neither the masochism of George Osborne nor a denial of economic reality. The Conservatives will never challenge the power of under-regulated markets; they do not accept its role in the crash and in the increase in our deficit; they are now assaulting the motors of growth outside the City, from loans to Sheffield Forgemasters to the RDAs. We must engage head on with the coalition if we are to win. We need to think about how we will create value and wealth, how to engage the energies of the innovators and the idle and those who have more to give. Financial and public services, on their own, are not enough. We need to rebalance our economy so there is innovation not just in financial products, but in the rest of the economy.

* We need to reclaim and re-enact our commitments to community. Default statism turns citizens into consumers and makes government a giant problem solver, which only increases our technical managerialism. This meant that our response to the Big Society was not to engage with its weaknesses, its lack of a political economy, its refusal to allow the society to challenge the market as well as the state, and this undermined our socialism. A life fit for a human being is about more than money and benefits. It’s about, responsibility, love, loyalty, friendship, action and victory, values that used to be engraved upon the Labour heart but which we have carried too lightly of late. We need a creed that could combine solidarity with responsibility, freedom and equality. Without community ethics, lived and upheld, it is difficult to generate the civility we value. I take the Big Society seriously. But it is a piece of doublethink – a small society maintained by voluntarism and charity alone. I want a bigger society, based on reciprocity not just kindness or charity, and I intend to make that a Labour issue. We lost crime as a Labour issue in part because it was not talked about enough, but also because we did not resolve the false choice of being punitive and managerial or ineffective and soft headed. I believe in a bigger society based upon relationships forged in justice, of people holding the market, the state and each other to account as proper partners to society.

* We have to make our internationalism work for people in this country. Our embrace of the opportunities of globalisation neglected its unequal impact. It meant that we seemed not to understand concerns about immigration and address them. We did not appreciate the sense of confusion, loss and powerlessness that people felt about loneliness, insecurity, the sheer difficulty in holding together a family. We asked too little and promised too much and the result was an uncomprehending anger at felt like our betrayal. I am critical of the inequalities, unsustainabililties and instabilities of globalisation but like Keir Hardie, I am resolutely internationalist. That means solidarity with people around the world, including organised labour in places where workers are being exploited and unions are illegal. That means China too, and we should support the demand of striking workers there to win recognition as democratic trade unions.

* We have to make democracy our ally again, outside and inside our party. The lack of democratic discussion, the hollowing out of the party, our administrative and managerial methods meant that we were seen as a fearsome but not attractive political machine, and that was confirmed for many by the McBride emails and the ugliness of that kind of politics. We did not come to represent a new dawn, but another government whose time had passed. But it was worse, in that concern with spin and media management, and attempts at triangulation, led to where I began, a sense that we did not have a creed that we would live for, a strong idea of a good society and a life fit for a human being for all our citizens. We will need to discuss both how we renew the party and build relationships with local institutions and pursue campaigns from the living wage and local banking to civic amenities and community responsibility. We also need to give far more thought to how to support and nurture relationships between people and the energy that generates. We need to think about how to redistribute power as well as responsibility to people so that the pursuit of a good society is their story too.

We lost on trust, identity, the capacity to inspire reasonable hope among our people. To win, we need to get that back, not just on policy, but in the way we do politics.

And so the wheel has come full circle. In some ways we are back to Hardie’s time, where the Conservative and Liberal Parties wish to exclude Labour from power. We should not weep for the Liberals, and neither should we pander to them. We must offer a home to all those who recognise that there is a long struggle ahead to protect the working people of our country from bearing the brunt of the grief that was generated not by them but by markets beyond their – and our – control. We should be humble, determined, open and engaged. And we have a lot to learn, there are big conversations and discussions ahead.

The task ahead for Labour is to renew the covenant of trust that Hardie forged, and become once more, the reasonable hope of a reasonable people. As Labour leader I will engage with a fundamental change in the way we do politics. I want an elected party chair because the task of leading the opposition to the coalition government in Westminster and renewing the party and its organisation is not the job of one man alone. I welcome the culture of collegiality and mutuality that this will bring. These are our values and we should live by them. I will engage with a debate across the party on the challenges that face us.

This leadership election is the beginning of the conversation, not the end and we will go deeper still, and renew our mission to be the hope of a common life between what was previously divided, to find common purpose where there is fear and anger, to remind people that the greatest hope we have is each other.

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