David Miliband looks to Labour’s future in DC

by Jonathan Todd

On the day before his brother’s attendance at the royal wedding, David Miliband was in Washington DC. This followed his tentative steps back towards the philosophical front line with a speech at the LSE on the decline of the left in Europe. Then, at the centre for American progress, he addressed the politics of identity and fear. On both occasions, therefore, he tackled in an international context issues of profound domestic significance.

This approach, obviously, has the advantage of minimising any sense in which David is stepping on Ed’s toes. But such internationalism is also instructive. The challenges facing Labour are similar to those facing social democratic parties elsewhere. The rise of the English Defence League is not the only instance of the search for identity turning ugly. In different ways everything from the birther movement to the success of the True Finns and Thilo Sarrazins can be seen through the same prism.

Miliband identifies “a backlash against globalisation. In the context of a big shift in power from west to east, there are no votes in being an internationalist and there are votes in being nativist”. The west-east shift is involved with a deepening of the global economy, but political impulses form a counter-reaction to this. They may be less pronounced where economies are strong. Canada’s economy is relatively healthy and Bloc Québécois, who might be considered a nativist element in Canadian politics, suffered in recent elections.

Michael Sandel, a voice worth listening to from across the Atlantic, argues “in the age of NAFTA the politics of neighbourhood matters more, not less”. Particularly given that the UK is, according to Miliband, “an over centralised country with underpowered communities”, the renewed importance of neighbourhood politics makes the movement for change more consistent than it might initially seem with the international focus of his politics.

Sandel sees contemporary dilemmas mirrored in debates of the progressive era. “Some sought to preserve self-government by decentralising economic power and bringing it under democratic control. Others considered economic concentration irreversible and sought to control it by enlarging the capacity of national democratic institutions”. With Maurice Glasman’s praise for the “worker representation on the management board, works councils, pension co-determination, regional banks and vocational regulation” in Germany, blue Labour might parallel the former instinct. The later has an echo in calls for stronger European and global governance.

Miliband noted that Labour faces a strategic question over whether to support such calls and make the EU more central to Labour’s politics. We should – for example, on international co-ordination of financial and environmental regulation – when only joined-up policy will suffice. While the international forums that should respond to these issues are vital, they are too technocratic and remote to be rallying points towards progressive senses of identity.

The less technocratic and closer-to-home institutions championed by blue Labour are now important precisely because they remain capable of forming the stuff of such identities. Miliband credited Glasman and Jon Cruddas with “genuine insight” when asked about the contribution of blue Labour by Uncut.

New Labour, like other centre left parties, embraced the opportunities of globalisation from the 1990s onwards. However, such policies as re-skilling, industrial policy and city renewal, Miliband conceded, have not enabled enough of these opportunities to be grasped for all to be convinced of globalisation’s virtues. The response to this is only partly to be found in the emphasis of centre left parties on seizing the economic benefits of globalisation. Economic growth, particularly when equitably shared, can dampen the discontents of globalisation but it cannot alone eliminate them.

It needs to be buttressed by the left winning arguments about identity. “The paucity of the economic answer”, said Miliband, “means that we can’t vacate the identity terrain”. He spoke of a “demanding pluralism”, stressing the responsibilities that should come with the rights of citizenship, as part of this.

Both David Miliband and James Purnell continue to be spoken of as potential leaders of the Blairites. Both have recently spoken internationally on domestic matters. Both are grappling with some fusion of new Labour and blue Labour. This was implicit in Miliband’s remarks last week and has been stated more explicitly by Purnell.

We need the economic openness and aspiration of new Labour. And its willingness to confront change squarely where necessary. We also need the reassurances provided by the continuity and preservation of blue Labour where these instincts can be nourished. The challenge is in knowing where and when change must be embraced and where continuity is the appropriate virtue. Simply having the later gear seems an adaptation to the vintage new Labour model. For this to move us forward it must contribute towards a hopeful and credible account of what Britain can become. This has always been provided by Labour at its best and is the most potent antidote to the politics of fear.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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8 Responses to “David Miliband looks to Labour’s future in DC”

  1. Miliband charts the way to electoral oblivion.

    Seriously, what is this GUFF?!

  2. iain ker says:

    On both occasions, therefore, he tackled in an international context issues of profound domestic significance.


    Yeah, woddevah.

    Meanwhile (out here in the real world, away from the spads, the think-tanks, the policy wonks, the ‘strategists, the interns, and sundry other bastard offspring of the publicpursocracy) people worry about their jobs, the state of the economy, prices, and whether their kids are goingto amke it through the day in their TUCLabour award winning much-improved flagship academy without being stabbed.

    I say ‘people’, I mean ‘the little people’.

    Not me, of course.

    TUCLabour – Out of Power, Out of Ideas.

  3. Miranda Grell says:

    Very good article, Jonathan.

  4. Robert says:

    Last comment no good, ah well time to move on.

  5. Amber Star says:

    Regarding globalism & global workers, New Labour created a crack into which the Tories drove a wedge which split the Labour vote apart.

    The crack: We are all consumers of goods & services. We are all entitled to top quality services & cheap goods. We need not give any respect to those who provide those services or make those goods. We have paid out ‘good’ money for them & that is all which is required of us.

    What did that crack open up into?
    1. Workers – especially foreign workers who labour to make things for us – do not deserve respect. After all, they are being paid. Some may deserve sympathy, they are being paid too little & are being ‘exploited’, but no respect is due to any workers anywhere; they are human ‘robots’ who churn out stuff for us to buy. Such ambivalence towards each other as fellow ‘workers’ was a gift to the Tories.

    2. Public service workers – from binmen to heads of universities – all became, under New Labour, professionals responsible for providing consumers with an efficient & professional service. Again, Labour failed to see that the ‘professional’ tag was a two-edged sword. It may have been intended to make public sector workers more valued but the down-side is, people began to view them as ‘highly paid’, faceless professionals i.e. they were seen by private sector workers as an ‘elite’ who enjoyed a priviledged status & were protected from the pressures of globalism. Another gift to the Tories.

    3. Europe is super. Everything about it is super. There are no downsides. What a naive message for New Labour to promote! It was the Tories who took us into Europe. Enthusiasm for the good things, measured caveats about the downsides should always be a Party’s attitude to something that was introduced by the Other Party. Basic politics that New Labour (foolishly, IMO) chose to ignore on Europe.

    4. Customers are valuable & everybody must compete for their favour (this approach was the opposite of ‘Old Labour’). But whenever competition is king, those who ‘lose’ can only protect their own self-respect by either concluding that the deck was stacked against them or opting not to compete.
    And the Tories were allowed to leverage this (running the most two-faced narrative I have ever seen on any subject) on immigration & globalism:
    Our patriotic, Tory businessmen would love to give you all jobs but Labour has forced them to employ foreign workers by swamping the country with immigrants. These powerful businessmen are, like you, hapless victims of misguided New Labour policies.
    Why on earth did Labour allow the Tories to get away with this?
    Because we didn’t want to alienate businessmen by saying: Business people, not the government, decide who they hire.

    – So, having identified the issues, should Labour change direction?
    No, say Purple Labour just keep saying that the ‘third’ way is the right way & that the customer should remain king; or even be elevated to god-like status.
    Yes, say Blue Labour. We should change in a way that involves slamming on the brakes & doing a screeching u-turn.
    Good grief, say I. Is Purple & Blue, or a mix of the two, the best we can come up with?

    And, FWIW, I doubt David Miliband & James Purnell will be the ones who come up with any better ideas. To me, the idea that DM & JP can speak for grassroots Labour, on any subject, is LOL funny.

  6. Richard says:

    Movement for Change can’t even be bothered to move its arse and reply to people who have signed up to learn more, responded to its surveys, re-contacted them when there’s been no feedback. Nada, nil, zippo. Completely lacking in manners and respect for the little people in the Labour Party who do all its hard work.

  7. Roger says:

    This is a global crisis of capitalism – and one to which the ruling class is responding with the tried and tested methods of the 1930s by shifting all of the costs onto working people.

    Bleating about the need to balance continuity and change is simply not going to cut it any more.

    What we need is a narrative so compelling that even the Tory media can’t ignore or twist it beyond recognition.

    And frankly the only thing that will do that now is outflanking the Tories to the right by offering a referendum on the EU.

    Now I am not anti-EU but the crisis has shown it to be a hugely premature attempt at federalism and it needs to be seriously reined back before it lays waste to more countries like Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Spain.

    And this is the one card that Cameron cannot trump without breaking the coalition with the Lib Dems.

    Harold Wilson played the EU card masterfully in 1974 – if we want to pitch the Tories and LDs out in 2015 we need to follow his example.

  8. Lucy says:

    Miliband D and Purnell are both has beens. Nobody in the real world talks about them as potential leaders of the Blairites – their moment has passed and they both flunked their chances to gain power. They have no appeal beyond the sheltered world of think tanks, the Labour Party has moved on.

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