We learn by history, we don’t live in it

First published in Progress magazine

Richard Angell talks to the former foreign secretary and Labour leadership contender about New Labour, ‘Next Labour’, and building a movement.

It’s the first weekend of David Miliband’s much-anticipated leadership campaign and the candidate is in buoyant mood. ‘I think the resilience of the Labour party, the determination of our voters to see through the money and the media that was being thrown at them, the power of real conversations that were happening in constituencies all around the country are encouraging and a source of pride to each of us’ says the former foreign secretary of this month’s general election results.

But Miliband is hardly sanguine about the scale of Labour’s losses on May 6: ‘It was a bad defeat and we lost more than 95 MPs. In the three southern regions of England we have got 12 MPs out of 209 MPs outside London. We were below 30 per cent of the vote and all this against a Conservative party that was fundamentally unconvincing and not particularly credible nor attractive to the voters.’ In short, he says, the party received ‘a kicking’ and there’s only one response to that: ‘The most important thing when you have been given a kicking, is to respect it, to feel it, recognise it and reflect on it.’

Highlighting Labour’s lost voters among the critical skilled working-class C2 voters who switched to Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and then back to Tony Blair in 1997, Miliband outlines three reasons for the party’s defeat. ‘First, this was a change election and we didn’t seem to be for change; a change in terms of improvements in people’s lives. Second, we were seen to be late to the game when it came to some key issues on welfare, immigration, and we seemed to have lost some focus on antisocial behaviour and education. We were half-hearted or latecomers on political reform and not really believed on political reform. Third, we suffered the usual challenge of government: we seemed out of touch. There was a disconnect between the leadership and the party membership, and a disconnect between the party and the country. When you put each of those reasons together, you get to 29 per cent of the vote.’

Miliband agrees that the Labour campaign appeared too male, with too few of the party’s senior women used to help deliver its key messages. But he believes that this had much wider implications than preventing the party from connecting with women voters. ‘The truth is the old style of politics – of deals, politics as a game not a calling – is a much more stereotypically male, rather than female behaviour. And I think we have to realise that the old politics was male politics and the new politics needs to be male and female politics.’ And the former foreign secretary’s prescription for the party is clears: “We have to take seriously dialogue, respect, and discussion. Debate doesn’t mean a fight, and dialogue doesn’t mean civil war. I think we have got to understand that new politics, as well as new policy, is going to be important for the Labour party.’

But didn’t Labour fail to promote the new politics when it had the opportunity in government? Miliband pulls no punches in his assessment. ‘I think there was a quarter, 30 or 40 per cent of a political revolution in the changes we made after 1997. We didn’t go the whole way, the House of Lords – still unreformed relatively speaking.’ Miliband, who headed Tony Blair’s policy unit during Labour’s first term, wants that the party ‘can’t afford to be scared off political reform.’ Still aware of the issues that led Labour to embark upon sweeping reforms in 1997, he warns: ‘We have to continue to say our country is over centralised, our country is over secretive, and our politics is insufficiently transparent and insufficiently pluralist.’

And Miliband is dismissive of David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s suggestion that the Lib-Con coalition embodies the new politics. Referring to its attempts to push through a proposed 55 per cent ‘super majority’ vote by MPs to trigger a dissolution, the former foreign secretary declares: ‘I think it shows contempt for democracy and I think we have to expose it. I think what they have shown is a hunger for power, not a hunger for reform.’ So what kind of opposition would Miliband lead were he given the chance? ‘We have to be constructive where appropriate, and raucous, determined and passionate where necessary.’

Miliband believes, though, that the leadership election provides an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate a renewed commitment to a new style of politics: ‘I think an important part of this campaign is about the party as a movement, not just a machine. I think we have to try all manner of means to open up our politics. So I think we should experiment with free subs. I think we should experiment with trade union members being party members by virtue of the political levy they pay. I want stronger links with union members at a local level.’ The former foreign secretary draws inspiration from abroad as much as at home: ‘We should really try and learn from the Greek Socialists who have got 11 or 12 per cent of the population in their party, the Obama campaign, and many different examples from across Europe and around the word of how you can get in touch with your community. We have got to be open to all ideas about how we become a mass movement.’

In his first weekend as leadership contender the former aide to Tony Blair appears to be distancing himself from New Labour with his call for the party to become ‘Next Labour’. So how does Miliband assess the project of which he was an integral part? ‘We must be Next Labour, not bowing down before New Labour’, he argues. ‘I think we should build – be proud of the good things – more proud of the good things than we have been. More humble about the mistakes, and more determined to build on what worked. We do have this unique advantage of three terms in office that have left the country richer, fairer, and more confident.’

Nonetheless, at times he appears almost frustrated by the limitations of New Labour. ‘If you think about it, New Labour has been good at national leadership, not good enough at promoting community self-government. New Labour was good at paying teachers, nurses and police more, not good enough at making them feel like real entrepreneurs with the power to reshape lives. New Labour has been good at breaking the link between economic growth and carbon growth – really important, not good enough at building up employment in environmental industries. Good at promoting rights and repsonsilibity in the welfare state, not good enough at demanding responsibility from the bottom to top of society. Good at responding to crises but not good enough at sticking to priorities.’

This is not, though, Miliband hastens to add, to take away from Labour’s achievements in office. ‘Let’s have pride in what we have done, but where we have achieved transformation let’s build on it. There was no national childcare for under-fives – Sure Start or free nursery education – until now. That is an example of transformation. There has been a transformation on equal rights, not just men and women but gay and straight. That is a transformation. Where we haven’t achieved a progressive transformation we have got to understand why.’

Miliband’s view of New Labour is thus somewhat more nuanced than the headlines suggest. ‘Those of us who believe New Labour was very successful for its time preserve the gains not by saying people are all the same, but by saying we learn. We learn by history, we don’t live in it. We shouldn’t allow anyone to trash New Labour but equally we shouldn’t be so defensive that we live in the past.’

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Photo: PolandMFA 2009

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