The challenges for Miliband's progressive fusion

Sunder Katwala
30 July 2008

The head of the British Fabian Society responds to David Miliband's recent article in the Guardian on the future of the Labour party.

A rather unconventional approach to David Miliband’s Guardian commentary would be to discuss the argument which he actually makes. Those of us who would like more open debate in our politics might at least try to attempt that. A public debate about the Labour party’s future direction, and how to forge an effective response to the Conservatives, could prove both more important, and rather healthier, than the fevered anonymous briefings about possible plots.

In any event, Labour MPs delude themselves if they believe that changing leaders for the second time in two years would automatically transform the party’s prospects. Gordon Brown has made mistakes but there has been an excessive focus on personality. This has been a collective Labour failure too. Nobody else has provided a popular and distinctively Labour argument to the core strategic challenges which the party faces. Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of the FabianSociety. Also by Sunder Katwala in OurKingdom: "Much Left" (23 September 2007) "Backing AV is the best hope of progressive reform" (26 March 2008)

That depends on addressing three important questions:

- What is the candid, progressive account of Britain in 2008 which voters will recognise?

- What, after 11 years in power, is Labour’s case as to what it wants another term in office for?

- What distinctively Labour argument could yet challenge the Conservatives, and seek to reunite Labour’s fracturing electoral coalition?

Those questions would need new answers for the Brown government to have any hope of recovery. To change leaders without addressing them could simply prove an act of political euthanasia, bringing forward a General Election by a year.

At least, David Miliband is trying to answer these questions. Many Labour party members have felt that too few Cabinet Ministers have been thinking and speaking politically, rather than just sticking to their departmental briefs. Miliband’s critique of the Conservatives as conservative is an incisive one, though reluctant conservative acquiescence to change after it has taken place is a strategy that has worked well for the right before, particularly after 1951.

But there are some important questions and challenges for the Miliband manifesto.

Miliband fizzes with ideas about how to renew Labour’s sense of progressive mission, but mostly for the long-term.

He has set these out in a series of significant political speeches. Miliband is eloquent on the need for empowerment to form a stronger part of Labour’s attack on inequality. He believes that power must be devolved to local communities, and that civilian engagement in international politics can help to recast and rescue liberal internationalism after Iraq. He advocates a serious commitment to low carbon growth could bring the energy of an environmentalist movement to a red-green progressive politics.

Each of these arguments present important choices for a centre-left politics. But Miliband remains some way from translating these into an accessible and popular argument for Labour to win again. It is less clear what immediate agenda this would generate for dealing with the pressures of an economic downturn and rising food and fuel prices, or public anxieties and grievances about immigration, crime, the closure of post offices or NHS reconfiguration. Whatever their merits as policy arguments, localism and empowerment do not offer a banner under which Labour could march towards the sound of electoral gunfire within the year. (Indeed, polling suggests that the public strongly prefers equity to localism and does not think that that different outcomes arising from different choices are a price worth paying for more local control.

Underpinning many of these ideas is Miliband’s big picture argument for a new ‘progressive fusion’ – that Labour can revive itself by "integrating the insights of the social democratic and the radical liberal traditions. I think there is a great deal of merit in this.

Labour must now define its own positive centre-left argument. It didn't do this in 1997 and the legacy is a growing weakness. This is not a matter of simply being more 'left-wing' in a shopping list of policies. Indeed, the temptation to become inward-looking is not a monopoly of the left. Some Blairites, perhaps drawing on their sectarian youth, are amongst the most oppressively factional in the Labour Party for all the proclaimed 'modernism' of their views. To succeed in becoming a part of the centre-left that can inspire its membership and gain public support Labour needs combine two things: being more ideologically rooted in clear values and principles with being decisively more pluralist and open in the way it does politics. That is how to sow the seeds for Labour forming part of a broader progressive ‘movement politics’, as David Lammy has advocated.

But, again, it will be very difficult to achieve this quickly. Labour will need to renew its commitments on child poverty and change gear change on climate change to bring progressive energy back to Labour. But there are significant progressive constituencies who are no longer on speaking terms with the party: here, the 42 days argument has reopened and exacerbated the divisions after the Iraq war. Restarting these conversations will be difficult.

Miliband’s advocacy of this ‘fusion’ was criticised recently by Phil Collins and new Demos director Richard Reeves, whose 'liberalise or die' attack on the ‘poisonous’ Fabian tradition was an argument that Labour can draw on liberalism only by ditching social democracy entirely. This strangely purist and anti-pluralist version of ‘new liberalism’ ignores the fact that all successful governing projects involve building ideological and social coalitions.

That advice highlights a second danger for David Miliband – the idea that he would be a ‘Blairite’ standard bearer for the Labour leadership.

Miliband is not an ‘uber-Blairite’. He did not challenge for the leadership when there was a vacancy last year, correctly concluding that Gordon Brown had a breadth of support which would guarantee victory. Perhaps the party, and its new leader, would have benefited from the open debate of a contested election but playing the gallant losing candidate did not appeal. But nor would it have made sense to be drafted by the ‘anybody but Gordon’ faction associated with the Blairite ‘outriders’ Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers. That doesn’t accurately represent Miliband’s political position – and it isn’t exactly a winning position within Labour’s electoral college in it either.

Miliband’s Guardian article explicitly rejects one of the central tenets of uber-Blairism: that Labour must not deviate from the winning formula and script of 1997. Miliband presents that as a conservative argument for consolidation. If David Cameron has persuaded his party to adapt to New Labour’s arguments of 1997, he must be challenged again by Labour reasserting its claim to be the party of ‘change’.

A similar argument saw Gordon Brown run on ‘change’ a year ago, but he has not defined the change since. His government has had much more continuity with the Blair years than this promised. Miliband would need to show that he is not advocating a change back to Blairism. That really would be déjà vu all over again.

And Miliband’s ‘progressive fusion’ argument does place him some way to the social democratic left of Tony Blair. Miliband will argue that narrowing inequalities in life chances define the mission of the centre-left; Blair could never bring himself to say that the gap mattered. Miliband also places a greater emphasis on bottom up approaches than traditional, Brownite social democracy. Perhaps Miliband’s social democratic-liberal ‘fusion’ approach could be described as ‘Blairite means to Brownite ends’. (Matthew Taylor, one of Miliband's successors in Downing Street has previously suggested that Miliband combines Blairite pluralism with Brownite values).

But that would be a mistake too. The last thing next generation Labour needs is to have the Blairite and Brownite labels to be inherited down the generations. The Bevanite/Gaitskellite factions divided Labour for 25 years, but at least that was about something at the outset. Take the personal allegiances out of it, and policy differences about public service reform are not an ideological argument to cascade down the generations. A ‘next generation’ Blair/Brown divide would depend on defining the substantive differences about ideas, policy and politics which divide David Miliband, once head of policy for Blair, from his brother Ed Miliband, former head of policy for Brown. I am willing to offer a free internet-based phD certificate in comparative social democracy to anybody who can do that. Perhaps, as a politician, David Miliband has more in common with Gordon Brown than anybody has recognised. Brown and the Miliband brothers have would few rivals as the most intellectually engaged frontbench Labour politicians since Tony Crosland. They are unusually interested in political ideas; they wish to turn these into governing strategies for the centre-left.

That ambition now depends on translating Labour’s defining beliefs in fairness and the necessary role of government into a popular argument which could begin to rebuild Labour’s coalition.

The leadership speculation is clearly taking serious risks with the public’s patience. But, whatever the Labour parliamentary party does now, they should at least realise that opening up the question of the leadership would resolve very little if we can not define what Labour wants to stand for and against.

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