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.