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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

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