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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump