David Miliband: time for some policies?

The reception for David Miliband’s Keir Hardie lecture on 10 July 2010 has been rapturous in some quarters — e.g. John Rentoul in an Independent newspaper blog, and, more surprisingly, by Jon Cruddas, standard-bearer of the left in the Labour party (“the most important speech by a Labour politician for many years”).  This is an opportunity to have a look at how successful the front-runner in the Labour leadership election has been so far in promising to re-format the party’s attitudes and values, and thence its policies, in the aftermath of a serious election defeat — not quite as catastrophic a defeat as many of us expected, but quite bad enough to demand some fundamental rethinking.  The 2010 Keir Hardie lecture is clearly meant as a major pronouncement of post-defeat rethinking by the current front runner in the leadership stakes. So it deserves careful attention.

I genuinely hate to say it, but I found the lecture terribly disappointing.  In a reappraisal of where Labour should be going, I look for two main ingredients: first, an assessment of the successes and failures, but especially the failures, of Labour’s 13 years in government, frankly acknowledging the defects and mistakes, discussing the reasons for them and ways to make sure that they are not repeated;  and secondly, an outline of a new overall Labour policy for dealing with the principal issues of our time, indicating how a Labour (or Lab-LibDem coalition) government would handle at least the most pressing of the following, even if only by a sentence on each:

recovery from recession, debt and the budget deficit, including the balance between taxes and expenditure cuts:  restructuring of the economy generally and the banks and financial institutions in particular: financing pensions as people live longer:  immigration:  retention, strengthening or liberalisation of the mass of anti-terrorism and crime legislation inherited from the last Labour government:  the Human Rights Act: the prison overcrowding crisis and sentencing policy, including the now discredited system of indefinite sentences “for public protection”, i.e. preventive detention: Britain’s place in the EU and relations with the US:  global poverty:  climate change:  Britain’s status as a nuclear power, and the future of Trident:  how long we continue to take part in the Afghanistan war and in what circumstances we would withdraw our forces:  Iran and Israel-Palestine: the doctrine of  “liberal intervention”: and ‘whither devolution?’ with still no answer to the West Lothian question, continuing discontent in Scotland and to some extent in Wales, and signs of restiveness (or worse) in England at the continuing denial of devolution to the biggest of the UK’s four constituent nations.

This adds up to a meaty and complex agenda.  We’re entitled to know where each of the five candidates stands on at least the most pressing items in it.

On most of these issues I would expect a major policy pronouncement like the Miliband lecture to pinpoint and explain the differences between the new post-election policies that he would pursue if elected party leader, and those of the present coalition government.  Attacks on the latter would, in my ideal lecture, be carefully placed in the context of a superior Labour alternative.  Where Labour and coalition government policies now largely coincide, I would hope to see praise and support for some at least of what the Cameron-Clegg government is beginning to do or at least to promise, especially in the area of civil liberties and Afghanistan.  Importantly, I would hope that the Labour leadership, including the candidates for election as leader, would resist the temptation to continue to defend the plainly indefensible elements in the policies and legislation of the Blair and Brown governments, especially in the fields of foreign policy and civil liberties, and to applaud the promises of the coalition government to reverse some of them.

Applying these hopes and expectations to Mr Miliband’s Keir Hardie lecture, I’m sad not to find in it any honest acknowledgement of the three great failures of the Labour years:  (1) the Iraq war crime, still not openly acknowledged as such from the Labour front bench despite still mounting evidence of its criminality (not to mention the slide into an unwinnable and  increasingly costly war in Afghanistan); (2) the relentless assault on individual liberties under cover of a hyped-up fear of terrorism; and (3) the constant indulgent kowtowing to the City and the financial institutions, leading to obscene inequality in our society, a poisonous celebrity culture fed by inconceivable personal wealth for the few, and now an almost total economic collapse which has given a profoundly reactionary Conservative party a golden opportunity, seized with greedy hands, to dismantle the welfare state.  Miliband’s lecture barely touches on any of these major failures (apart from a half-hearted admission of failure to address the excessive role and inadequate regulation of the financial sector), still less offering any specific new policies designed to guarantee that no future Labour government will ever repeat them.  Instead, there is sentence after sentence of what can only, in all charity, be described as pious waffle, to much of which careful analysis can attach virtually no meaning at all.

Perhaps worst of all, the lecture suggests absolutely no concrete policies for dealing with an unsustainable budget deficit and national debt, combined with nursing the first timid signs of recovery from recession, as a coherent alternative to the enthusiastic regressive butchery now already beginning to be practised by the Cameron-Clegg-Osborne triumvirate.  It’s a waste of time denouncing each new cut as the axe falls, bewailing each new loss of valuable programmes and projects, and stridently supporting every noisy interest group as each is targeted in turn by the Osborne axe, without being able to offer a positive, detailed and more socially responsible alternative programme.

We’re not fools:  we know that a Labour government would have had to make painful decisions about increased taxes and public expenditure cuts, and we are entitled to know what they would be. We need to know if Labour will stick to the illiberal and timid policies of the Blair-Brown era which so strained the loyalty of millions of its members and supporters.  Mr Miliband doesn’t tell us.  Would Labour under Miliband really be able to avoid raising VAT (as Alistair Darling favoured when Chancellor, until foiled by Gordon Brown) and abolishing some of the more obviously wasteful quangos? Would it really have persisted in the mindless follies of ID cards and the associated monster national database;  of wasting more billions on nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers and state-of-the-art fighter-bombers that we don’t need and can’t afford; of 28-day detention without charge and thousands of section 44 stop-and-search intrusions; of continuing to expand our shamefully inflated prison population, and building yet more prisons; of continuing the cull of brave (or even cowardly) young British men and women (not to mention Afghan civilians) in a literally purposeless war in Afghanistan; of extraditing Brits to the US on the basis of vague and menacing accusations which would cut no ice at all if we sought to use them as a basis for extraditing Americans from the US?  Would Labour still be refusing to hold a proper independent inquiry into serious charges of British collusion in torture? If the five candidates for the leadership can’t give us specific answers, indeed commitments, on questions such as these, it’s hard to see how they can lay claim to the votes of party members or the blessings of Labour’s remaining supporters.

It’s easy to pick holes in the Miliband lecture and perhaps it’s unfair to judge it in isolation from DM’s other policy speeches and interviews.  But I haven’t so far seen much to applaud in them, either.  The title of Miliband’s article in the New Statesman of 5 July — “How to solve the English question” —  raised my spirits: here at last a potential future Labour leader would surely tackle head-on the problem of unfinished devolution, England still denied the partial self-government enjoyed by the other UK nations, the West Lothian question, all that:  but no.  All Mr Miliband had to say on that complex of issues was:

An “English Parliament” is not the answer. We must strengthen the civic pride and economic resilience of English towns and cities. This is how the sense of identity, belonging and place of the many Englands can be better embedded and expressed. Labour needs to work with the grain of local and institutional affiliations – from army regiments to hospitals, from fire services to local authorities.

So much for the gaping devolution deficit.  So much for the unanswered West Lothian question.  We must just be satisfied with strengthening the civic pride and economic resilience of English towns and cities.  Perhaps we need a new Ministry of English Civic Pride and Economic Resilience for the purpose.  No reasoned argument: just the bald assertion —  ‘an “English Parliament” is not the answer.’  I wonder why it isn’t the answer.  Actually, I’m pretty sure that it’s at least part of the answer, as a stage on the way to a full UK federation.  That seems to me worth discussion, not bland dismissal.

If I have to admit to not having read every word of D Miliband’s lectures, articles and interviews since he became a candidate for the leadership, I plead in mitigation that much of it is so stodgy and abstract that it’s very difficult to get through it all without nodding off or turning on the telly half-way through.

It’s such a shame.  The older Miliband is in many ways an attractive figure — highly intelligent, sometimes eloquent, unfailingly articulate and well informed, obviously decent;  he was a good foreign secretary, the best for several years, with the potential, perhaps, of becoming a great one.  He ought to be an irresistible candidate for the leadership.  But he’ll need to do better than this if he’s going to come anywhere near earning my vote.


7 Responses

  1. Toqye says:

    Hi Brian,

    Did you see that D Miliband responded to my question on Labour Uncut?  He didn’t quite answer the question in full – which, I’ve noticed, is a habit of his.


    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Gareth. Here for the record is the text of your excellent question and D Miliband’s extraordinarily implausible reply:

    Q. (from Gareth Young) In the New Statesman you wrote ‘An “English Parliament” is not the answer’ but you gave no indication as to why it was not the answer. An English parliament seems like a very good answer to many people, so could you tell me why you think an EP is not the answer and whether or not you support a referendum on the issue so that the people of England can decide (as did Scotland and Wales)?

    A. I think they must have edited out my answer! I actually did say why. English MPs are already 85% of the UK parliament and the way to respect the needs as well as the history of England is to build up the civic institutions being launched are local institutions. And actually the needs in South Shields are very different from the needs in the Thames Valley. And the way to recognize that is not through an English parliament that tries to treat the whole of England as the same but through effective local governance that does reflect the different needs of the different parts of England.

    It seems a strange kind of logic that argues that because there are varying needs as between different areas of England, we don’t need a single parliament for the whole of England, when the only parliament for England that we currently have is a parliament for the whole of the UK — which includes even greater differences between regions and areas. It’s a bit like arguing that because Albany (the capital of New York State) is very different from Manhattan or Westchester County, there’s no point in New York State having its own state government and legislature, whereas it can quite happily be governed by the federal government and Congress in Washington DC! (Or try telling the Scots that because the needs of Edinburgh are different from those of the Isle of Skye, there’s no need for a Scottish parliament or government any more, and Scotland can go back to being governed from Westminster.) Equally fatuous.

    I’m afraid that Mr Miliband, like the great majority of our political leaders, has never really sat down and thought this through.

  2. Toque says:

    Yes, all nations have variation and diversity, including Scotland and Wales, so it does seem a strange logic to deny England on the grounds that South Shields is different to the Thames Valley.

    But then Labour have never been governed by logic when it came to England.  MORI’s 1995 “State of the Nations” poll found very few in favour of regional assemblies and 60% of the population actively opposed to them, so what did Labour do….?

    I wish they’d just ask the public, but the way that Miliband ducked that part of my question leads me to believe that he has no intention of consulting the public.  He will therefore repeat the past mistakes that were embarked upon thanks to a decision at the Joint Ministerial Committee (Blair, Prescott, Donald Dewar, Rhodri Morgan, David Trimble and the Secretary of States for Scotland (Wilson), Wales (Murphy) and Northern Ireland (Howarth)) that was taken in private away from public and Parliamentary scrutiny in which they agreed upon the plan to regionalise England.   

    Brian writes: Thank you again, Gareth. I agree that there’s no future in trying to break up England into artificial regions for the purpose of devolution or federalism, as the results of the popular consultations that you refer to demonstrate. The preponderance of England in size and wealth compared with the other three nations is a fact of life that makes federalism necessary, not an obstacle to it. Plenty of successful federations are characterised by huge disparities in the size and wealth of their component units.

    It looks as if Mr Miliband hasn’t thought this through, as I suggested earlier.

  3. Home Rule for England says:

    Milliband said “And actually the needs in South Shields are very different from the needs in the Thames Valley. And the way to recognize that is not through an English parliament”.
    Err are the needs of Gaelic speaking Stornoway or the Orkneys and Shetlands not very different from the needs of English speaking Edinburgh?
    Why is the way to recognise that through a Scottish Parliament?
    Brian writes: I made the same point myself in my response to one of Toqye’s [Toque’s] comments.

    But I’m prompted by your choice of pseudonym to stress that I don’t see the need for “home rule for England” as such, and indeed the very term suggests a kind of English resentment of our UK partner nations which England’s greater size and wealth renders absurd. What’s needed is a federal system for the whole UK that will protect the three smaller nations from English dominance, and will establish a durable, democratic and decentralised relationship between the four UK nations and between each of the nations and the federal centre at Westminster. It’s in that context that the case for a parliament and government for England needs to be made — as a necessary stage on the way to a UK federation, not for ‘home rule’ with its wholly incongruous Irish connotation, and with its implication of a sufficient final destination.

  4. John Miles says:

    Lord Mandelson and Mr Campbell confirm the impression tha New Labour high flyers are much too busy with their own little feuds, jealousies and spats to try to think at all deeply about any problems facing the country or the world.
    Not that they ever seem all that interested.

    Brian writes: Thanks, John. But do you really think that things have ever been any different in the relationships between rivals for power at national or any other level? Churchill kept Eden waiting for the succession to No. 10 for years, constantly promising to step down soon and then changing his mind, long after becoming more or less senile. R A Butler had every reason to expect to succeed Macmillan but was robbed of the succession in intra-party manoeuvring. Harold Wilson was convinced that various of his ministers were scheming to bring him down and he was mostly right. Herbert Morrison (P Mandelson’s grandfather) was rushing round after the 1945 election trying to prevent Attlee being called to the Palace to be appointed prime minister so that he, Morrison, could overthrow Attlee as party leader and become prime minister himself (Ernest Bevin told him that if he didn’t shut up and go home, he wouldn’t be in the bloody government at all). The Roman emperors could have taken lessons in bloody in-fighting and intrigue among powerful colleagues from presidential elections in the Oxford or Cambridge Unions. Indeed I doubt if the bloodier of the Roman emperors would have been horrified by Lord Mandelson’s revelations, and anyway almost everything he says about the Brown and Blair struggles has been common knowledge for years. Compared with some of the titanic struggles of the past, this was pretty feeble stuff. Government was carried on and some great things were done, as well as some calamitous decisions taken. Situation normal.

  5. ObiterJ says:

    I suspect that no candidate is keen to set out a stall as to what he would do about any of the serious issues you have mentioned.  After all, if you do say what your policy would be, you risk upsetting people who might have otherwise voted for you.
    I must make it clear that I do not like David Miliband one little bit.  Neither do I like David Cameron.  We are the poor saps who have to live with the likes of them lording it over us.  Several of New Labour’s sins are now coming home to roost including complicity of British agents in torture and rendition.  Documents have been revealed which should, on any view, by seriously damaging to the standing of the Labour Party and certain ex-Ministers:
    Miliband was not Foreign Sec. during the Iraq War but, so far, I have seen nothing to suggest that he did not support his government’s policies and when he became Foreign Sec. he fought tooth and nail to prevent disclosure of documents even to Her Majesty’s Justices of the High Court.
    Yes, it would be good to see some clear statements from these candidates but, for the reasons given, I doubt that we will see very much.

    Brian writes: Thanks. You’re probably right. But a questionnaire sent to all five candidates, as being proposed in the comments over at Labour List, might winkle them out, I suppose. Otherwise we’ll be buying a pig in an extremely opaque poke.

  6. John Miles says:

    Yes, but does it have to be like that?
    I hoped, and almost expected, better things when Mrs Thatcher got the bullet, and again when New Labour first got in; I even hoped against hope when they got rid of Mr Blair.
    I’ve now given up on New Labour, and think/hope there’s just a chance – a teeny, tiny, tony little chance – that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will manage to work together for the benefit of everybody.
    So let’s wish ourselves luck!

    Brian writes: Thanks, John. I think there’s a dilemma here. The coalition claims to be trying to reduce the national debt and the budget deficit, and to encourage economic recovery from recession. No-one can want it to fail in those endeavours. To that extent I agree that we should wish the coalition success, including a durable bonding between Cameron and Clegg. On the other hand, many of us think that the way the coalition is setting about achieving those laudable objectives is tragically misconceived, and likely to do much more harm than good. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that the Tories are seizing the opportunity of the recession and the widely accepted need for cuts in government spending — at some point, if not now — in order to drive a coach and horses through the welfare state and the basic inter-party consensus on the desirability of a just society organised on a fundamentally Beveridgian basis. To that extent, it’s impossible to hope for their success. Fortunately or otherwise, what we wish for is not going to affect the success or failure of the coalition’s various efforts in any way whatever, so we can wish for whatever we like.

  7. John Miles says:

    Yes, there’s certainly a bit of a dilemma!
    You’re quite right to say that many people “think that the way the coalition is setting about achieving those laudable objectives is tragically misconceived, and likely to do much more harm than good.”
    On the other hand quite a few people don’t think this?
    Who’s right?
    For what it’s worth – not a lot – my own hunch is that it won’t make much differemce whose policies we embrace; whatever we do, a lot of people are goimg to get badly hurt, but sooner or later the economy’ll stagger back to something like normality, fluctuate for a decade or so and then have another dramatic bust.
    If, as seems to be the case, a lot of misery’s inevitable, the proper thing’s to try to share it out as equally as possible.
    Is anyone even trying to do this?
    Would New Labour if they were still in 0ffice?

    You say the Tories want “to drive a coach and horses through the welfare state and the basic inter-party consensus on the desirability of a just society organised on a fundamentally Beveridgian basis.”
    There are those who think New Labour’s already made a pretty good job of that.
    Last point: people like Mr Balls, Mr Burnham, Mssrs Milliband, Ms Harman etc are more than happy to bad-mouth the coalition’s proposals, but are very coy indeed about what they they’d do themselves.
    Or have I missed something?