David Miliband's approach won't save Labour

The old party is dead but its successor is yet to be born.

Deep within a filling cabinet I keep a copy of the 1998 Marxism Today special that just said "Wrong" on a cover adorned by Tony Blair. I thought of it while reading David Miliband in last week's New Statesman. In it David proclaimed that Labour should say "loud and clear where we
made mistakes, but we should also insist that the list of gains far outstripped the mistakes. After all, even David Cameron said on coming to office that Britain was better in 2010 than 1997".

This coming to grips with our past is the essential question facing Labour. Just as New Labour defined itself against "Old", what the party says about its past now defines its future. But what David gets wrong is the idea that we judge a governments record on some balanced scorecard, like goals scored for or against. But this is not how people judge any government as the election result and subsequent polling shows. Instead governments either succeed or fail in total as political projects. Eden/MacMillan, Wilson, Heath and Major all failed compared to the success of Attlee and Thatcher. Those judgements are made not, for example, by trying to balance the poll tax with council house sales but whether they took their particular political project further forward and made them stronger.

Even if we take the most modest definition of the New Labour project, that of humanising neoliberalism, it is a project now in ruins. Unemployment is soaring and youth unemployment sickeningly high, the poor are being targeted and humiliated with housing benefit and a hundred other cuts, public services are being decimated - all of which would have largely continued under Labour. Education and health are being broken up and commercialised. New Labour paved the way for all this. Democracy is weaker and inequality greater after the biggest majorities Labour has ever had. The party itself is on the floor. Resistance comes from new forces; Avaaz, 39 Degrees and UK Uncut.

Before you ask, what did you expect, a revolution, let's go back to David who was right last week when he said "The role of social democrats is
to take the values of ethical socialism and put them into practice in a gradual way." Precisely, Labour is a party of gradualism and pragmatism. It means slowly and cleverly heading in the right direction. Not stupidly and quickly going in the wrong direction. Yes Labour did some good things
but mostly for the wrong reason in the wrong way. It broke the state in its manic attempt to set markets free and then prop them up when they
inevitably failed. In the process it destroyed its own electoral base.The promise of 1997 ran through its fingers. There is no legacy, no intellectual framework, no vision and no countervailing forces. Even the narrow project to humanize capital is set further back now than in 1997. It's why David Cameron thinks Britain was a better place in 2010 than 1997 - because we failed the test of pragmatism and gradualism not because we succeeded. And unless and until the party recognises its failure it cannot move on.

The core of this failure can be found in the rejection of the politics of interest and the necessary ideas, policies and forces to put the very
interests of society before the market, people before profit and democracy over elites. You can't humanize the market by giving in to it. That way lies crisis. You humanise it by moral arguments and political strength. That is why Ed Miliband is right about responsible capitalism but now has to package it within a compelling vision of a good society and a progressive alliance of forces, parties and organisations that will deliver and sustain it.

The in-balance approach of David Miliband just leaves us hoping the coalition fails and the party gets back having learnt the right technical lessons, recalibrating and tweaking this or that policy - expecting things to work out differently next time. They won't. I was an early and excited young proponent of New Labour because I could see Labour needed fundamental renewal. Back then options such a stakeholding and communitarianism offered different futures and was why I argued against the Marxism Today claim of "Wrong!" But they have been proved right.

Today Labour has to reconnect to a centre ground that well knows it failed, but only because it knows where it wants to lead them - to a good society. In this unique crisis of capitalism it should not be beyond Labour's ability to demonstrate it can tax well, spend well and regulate the worst excesses of the market effectively while building a new and responsive state.

Labour is in what Gramsci called an "interregnum". The old is not yet dead, the new is not yet born. One paradigm needs to give way to the new. Only Labour can determine how long its interregnum lasts - it can be painful and partial or more quickly and fully resolved. The party can be blighted for decades by a generation of politicians who refuse to admit they got it wrong. In difficult circumstances those politicians did their best. It wasn't good enough. But failure is acceptable if you learn from it. To do that you have face it. The Tories will never learn and will make things much worse. To do the best for the country Labour has to say it failed. Then it can move on.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.