Blunkett is right: one out of three ain’t good

by Rob Marchant

It cannot have been the most welcome of interventions by a party elder, coming on the eve of TUC conference and a tricky moment for Miliband in his critical party reform agenda. Even less so to have chosen as his medium Labour’s favourite bête noire newspaper.

But although some things have moved on in the intervening ten days, David Blunkett’s recent Daily Mail piece certainly succeeded in one thing: he correctly identified the three areas where Labour has shown itself wanting, and in which its overall lack of success this year has surely not helped Miliband’s personal poll ratings, now standing at an historic low.

And they are these: its struggle with union leaders – as opposed to their members, who Uncut demonstrated last week think differently – over party reform; its recent foreign policy disaster over Syria; and its constant problem since the last election, the economy.

On party reform, Miliband certainly seems doing the right thing. It is a difficult path, but he stood his ground last week, we can only hope that that continues next week at party conference. He deserves the party’s praise and support, as even Times columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris acknowledged this weekend.

The problem he has is the other two areas.

First, it looks to be too late to recoup the losses on Labour’s Syria stance.

It is ironic that he same subject that gave rise to Obama’s now-legendary “red lines” also gave rise to the crossing of some red lines within our own party. There are some who will never forgive Miliband, although, to be fair, they are surely in the minority.

Whether you take is as an unintentional fumble or a cynical way to score party political points at a time when statesmanship was called for, it has been a watershed; one which has left Miliband consolidated in some sections of his party, yet diminished in the minds of opinion-formers who have spent the last three years treating him with polite respect, if not a warm embrace. The fickle country, despite not being keen on war, has surely yet to decide what it thinks about Labour’s handling of Syria, but sure-footed it has not been.

Bizarrely, probably the biggest influence the Labour leader has had in the last three years on either British or world affairs was a question of domino effect: his party’s declining to support the government in the Syria vote, in combination with Cameron’s poor management of the parliamentary arithmetic, did for any chance of British intervention to stop the genocide.

Which in turn clearly helped Obama find himself in want of political cover for military action. Which triggered his call for a congressional vote and, later, its embarrassing cancellation thanks to a lifeline thrown to him by, of all people, Vladimir Putin. A morally bankrupt, authoritarian leader whose main agenda is to protect his interests in the country while poking the West in the eye, who Obama has paradoxically made look like a statesman and peacemaker. What a mess.

If a solution is found which truly stops the killing of Syrian civilians – a frankly unlikely prospect, even if the chemical weapons are fully decommissioned – history may just look kindly on Obama and Miliband.

But the current, hindsight-driven, “stopped the rush to war” narrative may, equally, look foolish. Needless to say, there are enough historical precedents of a country’s interests being negotiated away in a short-sighted deal by third parties, as happened in Geneva last week, only to find that the conflagration comes anyway.

Either way, that ship has sailed for Labour.

Second, Labour has spent the last three years umming and aahing about the economy. Last year, as the economy stuttered, various cocks on the Labour side were crowing victory for the “cuts but not too far, not too fast” strategy. They were sure that Britain was in a slump which would last until 2015.

With recent economic data, those cocks have fallen a little silent, these days.

The frustrating fact is that Labour’s economic policy probably would have been better. It would have brought recovery sooner. But politically, “ok, so things may be recovering but we would have done it a bit sooner” is not just a weak position. It is a losing position.

We are arguing about the relative merits of alternative pasts.

As things stand, it is a stretch to see how this can be transformed into a credible economic position, but there are ways of doing it, for whichUncut will be laying out some modest suggestions next week. But one wonders how long Labour can keep repeating “the Tories got it wrong”.

What matters is not whether they did, it is whether anyone believes us any more.

In the end, of those three arenas, in only one are we heading in the right direction: party reform. And that one, vital though it is, is fraught with difficulty. On the one where we can still change course, the economy, we need to radically change our thinking to meet the changed circumstances; that there now remains a fast-vanishing doubt that by 2015 our economy will have returned to a respectable state.

Many years ago Meat Loaf, in a well-known ballad of the day, crooned consolingly that “two out of three ain’t bad”.

But the converse holds true: one out of three ain’t good. This conference needs to change that, insofar as it still can.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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17 Responses to “Blunkett is right: one out of three ain’t good”

  1. swatantra says:

    Look we had all this debate in the Brown era, but nobody was brave enough to put up. Remermber Chas Clarke? And MacDonnell? And the Other Brother? Even they didn’t have the guts to run as a stalking horse or challenge. Either put up or shut up, and lets get on with it. 2 years is a reasonable time for any new Leader to make his mark. Ed hasn’t. Let somebody else have a go.

  2. Terry Casey says:

    As with most things what happened on the Syria debate can be viewed whichever way you see fit, I’m sure Miliband would have liked his amendment to carry which would have kept later action an option but he never said never on intervention, he just said wait and see what the UN found, the fact the Party voted against immediate military action surely was the right thing to do, and the fact Cameron had a fit of pique and took all other solutions off the table says more about him than Miliband. Even today we are getting differing messages as to who was to blame for the chemical attacks, rushing in headlong to bomb Syria on wrong facts is surely something we have done before in all to similar circumstances and caused more than a decade of upheaval that is ongoing in Iraq alongside the deaths of our soldiers and thousands upon thousands of Iraq people, we would have saved more lives staying away or at least making sure the laughingly named intelligence service had it right.
    It seemed we were heading for immediate involvement in Syria that would have brought even more instability in the area, the drawing in of Iran would be dangerous, the dismissal of China and Russia even worse, it is often said when a country is in trouble the only way to bring your people together is war, and the undignified haste for us to bomb Syria looked to be what was going on here. The US is crumbling before our eyes, they are ready for a further downturn and as Ken Clarke quite alarmingly said it was America that was pushing Cameron to a speedy bombing campaign. The US are and have been for a few years hell bent on having a go at Iran and this would have opened the door for them to do just that.
    Miliband may well have carried the no to immediate war vote and I am convinced as anyone else it was not a policy he thought he would defeat, I am sure he wanted to win with the amendment but he couldn’t have defeated the government without Tory and LD backing,
    This whole debacle may have been a lucky mistake by Cameron and Miliband but I for one am happy it happened, we have seen too many times our governments jump into situations for very much the wrong reasons, at last hopefully we will get it sorted through talking rather than tons of bombs being dropped where the euphemism collateral damage isn’t used to hide the reality of what actually happens when we murder thousands of people.

  3. Lee Butcher says:

    Rob,

    Your view of the Syria matter as being a ‘disaster’ for Labour isn’t substantiated. As a committed interventionist you, and those that agree with you, may view it that way but polling has shown that a majority of the public back Ed’s handling of the matter. Here is the evidence for that claim; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23931479

    There is also a great deal to said for creating a scenario where security objectives are met through agreement; resorting to war cannot be considered to be a success, but a sign of failure.

    The proposals put before parliament had no bearing on the conflict overall and would have had virtually no affect on the cause of the vast majority of civilian deaths in Syria; the motion and the plan (such as it was) was limited only to chemical weapons. If war was now being waged from the air against those stockpiles nothing would be being done to halt the use of conventional arms. Regardless of what happens concerning chemical weapons, resolving the conflict itself was beyond the ken and the interest of the involved parties. Any attempt to retrospectively insert that motivation into the parliamentary vote would be disingenuous.

    America, Britain and France enabled Putin to look reasonable not because we did not follow through with airstrikes, but because we advocated them in the first place. We sought to act as the aggressor. If the airstrikes had now begun we would currently be making Putin look even more reasonable than he is currently. The answer is not more aggression, but a more vigorous attitude toward diplomacy among foreign policy circles.

    I fear your categorisation of Syria as a problem for Ed has a great deal to do with your own views on such matters. The near hysteria indulged in by pro-interventionist commentators and papers, particularly the Telegraph, immediately after the vote demonstrates that there was little thought or analysis involved in criticising Ed, and instead it was the product of less rational impulses. As we are now seeing an agreed solution to chemical weapons developing, and the by-product of reviving previously stagnant diplomatic channels, the more sensible parliament’s decision is looking.

    Foreign policy matters (unless they are a complete disaster, Suez, Iraq etc.) rarely determine voting preferences. Ed and the party will be judged on domestic matters, but Syria certainly will not hurt and for some it may be one reason to come back to Labour.

  4. Tommy Judd says:

    “The frustrating fact is that Labour’s economic policy probably would have been better. It would have brought recovery sooner”.

    As a non-partisan reader, I have to contest this.

    First, a Labour victory in 2010 would have been a victory for Gordon (“investment not cuts”) Brown and the replacement of Chancellor Darling with Chancellor Balls. So it’s not right to extrapolate Darling’s non-specific projections through 2015.

    Second, while comparisons with Greece are wide of the mark, it is more than possible that a re-elected Brown – even or maybe especially one who would soon be replaced in a leadership election – would have meant higher and maybe substantially bond yields than those demanded of Osborne’s Treasury in 2010. Restoring Brown’s lost credibility would have demanded exactly the kind of “downpayment” Osborne, Laws and Alexander came up with followed by the almost identical consolidation schedule outlined in Darling’s last budget.

    Finally, what the coalition has done isn’t all about managing an early recovery – assuming governments are competent to do that effectively. Much of the work of the past three years has been about adjusting down expectations of real income and credit availability. One could make an argument that credit would have been even less available under a left government (especially one under Brown, who had a lot to prove after his light-touch years), which would have been forced to take action that exacerbated the banks’ natural de-risking.

  5. @TerryCasey: I was thinking yours was a very reasonable counterargument, until I got to this: “Even today we are getting differing messages as to who was to blame for the chemical attacks”. This is true, but at the same time daft. In all sensible corners of the world, politicians and non-politicians are saying the same thing – Assad.

    The only people who are differing are Russia and China and a few other autocratic or totalitarian regimes. Argue pros and cons of intervention, be my guest, but the blame for the attacks is utterly beyond doubt.

    @Lee: while I respect your right to be anti-intervention, we don’t work out policy for military action based on opinion polls, and neither should we.

    @Tommy: ah, nice to be attacked from the right for a change. Well, you can make a reasonable case for what you’re saying, it’s true. But a few Nobel laureates disagree. Osborne has been politically lucky, not administratively gifted, I think is the best analysis.

  6. Rational Plan says:

    Hmm an interesting version of events. But it looks like that Ed will water down his reshaping the party’s relationship with the unions and try and present it as a major victory.

  7. John p Reid says:

    Rob Merchant, on Terry’s comment , agree LOL.

  8. steve says:

    Perhaps the interventionists would have convinced more if they were frank about the link between intervening in Syria and a possible attack on Iran – only Blair and Dan Hodges (within Labour) addressed this. There is nothing to be gained by refusing even to acknowledge priorities when those priorities are already widely discussed by the public and are going to have to be revealed anyway.

    Their cause would also have been helped if the interventionists had not shied away explaining why we should join forces with Al Qaeda.

    The public sensed something rotten was occurring and the stench of it seemed to emanate from the preening politicians who had puffed up their pigeon chests but, in the face of well-reasoned public opposition, realised the game was up and looked for nearest exit. They were found out.

    At least we were spared the “the Roosevelt and Churchill/de Gaulle of the 21st century” nonsense.

  9. paul barker says:

    Milliband has already backed down on The Reforms as much as he can afford surely ? If he were to abandon the “Opt-in” not just his authority but that of the whole Shadow Cabinet would be destroyed.
    Even if Milliband goes ahead he may be defeated of course, that would damage Labour even more.
    Sucsess will cut Labours income & take away the Thing that makes you Labour.
    I really hope you enjoy your Party Conference its all downhill from there.

  10. @RationalPlan: I’m not sure you’re right, but I guess we’ll see on Tuesday.

  11. Leslie48 says:

    Its doubtful we will ever all agree about Syria but Bob is correct to raise this horror again. For some of us in the Labour party this was ‘a red line’ & a deep shock that we were on the side of sitting on our hands, and showing indifference when our party origins have always been internationalism, compassion & opposing hideous dictators.
    The massacre of so many civilians and their children by gas and that day was deliberately chosen so the gas would descend into the lower rooms where mums and kids were sleeping was so awful that as a socialist party it is to our eternal shame we voted to oppose action. It is a debate vote that shocked some of us to the core.

  12. Tommy Judd says:

    “Attacked from the right”? I’m not on the right and, if you think that was an attack, you are ridiculously thin skinned. That is the kind of comment that keeps the interested but non-aligned alienated from the politically righteous.

  13. Terry Casey says:

    Rob you are asking us to believe the very intelligence that gave us the Iraq information, I can’t believe you actually think along those lines, You would find it hard to believe them if they said it was raining in a downpour. very few people in high places are making decisions on my behalf and I want to know they are being truthful, and they definitely haven’t been up to now, the population of this country and America don’t trust them, and still no legitimate evidence has come forward other than american politicians saying it is so.

  14. steve says:

    By the way, Rob, which attack plan did you support:

    Was it Kerry’s “unbelievably small” pinprick?

    Or was it Obama’s “The U.S. does not do pinpricks”?

    Or Shirley Williams’ “One cruise missile aimed at one building in Damascus”?

    Or Cameron’s vague “sufficient to deter further use of chemical weapons”?

    Or perhaps, as Obama recently said, you’ll settle for “It’s fair to say I haven’t decided”?

  15. paul barker says:

    I read The Collins report & I am more confused than before. Will the March Conference actually introduce changes or simply pass a Report saying they are a good idea?
    Mostly The Report seems to say “Ooh, I dont know, what do you think ?”

  16. @Leslie48: Indeed. I can see the ghost of Ernie Bevin nodding along, too.

  17. Barbara says:

    Brilliant! I don’t think I have ever seen a serious attpmet to get political debate made accessible in easy read format. What a fantastically obvious thing that should be happening more, and yet, once more,it’s something I have come across thanks to disabled activists and organisations supporting their hard work.

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