What Miliband can learn from Brendan Barber's speech

The Labour leader should take up the TUC general secretary's call for an "Olympic-style national crusade".

Brendan Barber's valedictory speech to the TUC reminded us why he has been such a respected general secretary. It was intellectually coherent, well-delivered and humorous. Why, he quipped, if the government believes in sacking under-performing workers, is George Osborne still in a job?

The most notable section was on the Olympics, which Barber argued disproved the myth that "private is always better than public". Here's the key extract:

You can't pick winners. Tell that to Bradley, Jessica or Mo, all supported by targeted funding.

Markets always trump planning, they say. Well look at the Olympic Park, the result of years of careful planning and public investment.

Private is always better than public, they argue. Not true, as we saw all too clearly when it came to Olympic security.

Those summer weeks were a time when we really were all in it together. Not because we were told to be. But because we wanted to be. Athletes, workers, volunteers, spectators, residents, communities - all pulling together.

It's an argument that Ed Miliband, who, unusually, isn't addressing the TUC this year, should adapt for himself. While politicians should be wary of overtly politicising the Olympics, the Games have created the intellectual space for Miliband to argue for increased public investment and planning, and what Barber called "an Olympic-style national crusade". As I wrote in my profile of Tim Soutphommasane, the Australian writer who is shaping the Labour leadership's thinking on patriotism, a patriotic appeal to "rebuild Britain" after austerity could resonate with voters in 2015. Under the rubric of "national reconstruction", Labour could champion policies such as a National Investment Bank, a school-building programme, and a "solidarity tax" on the wealthy.

Miliband's best hope of winning the next election lies in offering an optimistic vision of a society of shared obligation and reward, something Bill Clinton did so effectively in his speech to the Democratic National Convention when he contrasted a "we're-all-in-this-together" society with a "winner-take-all society".

The irony is that "we're all in this together", with its appeal to voters' instinctive patriotism, would have been a good slogan for the Tories if only they'd lived up to it. But their reckless reform of the NHS ("the closest thing the English people have to a religion", in the words of Nigel Lawson) and their decision to abolish the 50p tax rate, an important symbol of solidarity in hard times, means that they have lost any claim they had to be a patriotic one-nation party. The road is clear for Miliband to establish Labour as the truly patriotic party.

Outgoing Trades Union Congress general secretary Brendan Barber. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.