David Miliband: The decade of disorder

As he prepares to leave for his new life in America, the former foreign secretary explains why the financial crisis has not created an upsurge of support for the centre left – and why defensive opposition is not enough.

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People sometimes ask why – or lament that – the financial crisis of 2008 has not led to an upsurge of support for the centre left. One answer is that in many countries parties of the centre left were in government, and so got the blame, yet this is insufficient. In truth there was a major market failure and in particular a failure of under-regulated markets. But there was state responsibility, too. Moreover, as Stan Greenberg has written, “a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism”. That is why reforming the state as well as reforming the market is a necessity, not a luxury. Where centre-left parties do get elected, they quickly find that, while the nostrums of what Tony Judt called “defensive social democracy” can strike a chord when a party is in opposition, they are insufficient for government. The welfare state needs defence in the face of unfair attacks. But it also needs reform. Inequality is undoubtedly a modern menace exacerbated by austerity, but macroeconomic policy and even full employment will not tackle its roots. Those at the bottom need a voice, but the middle class is also feeling squeezed. The public sector and its services have been a civilising force in western societies, but they need to operate very differently to meet the twin challenges of changing public expectations and needs and limited public funds.

Francis Fukuyama has laid down the challenge as follows: “It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.”

We who are on the centre left should take this challenge seriously. There is not an “off-the-shelf” model of social democracy, though there are powerful examples of what can make a positive difference (as well as what doesn’t). The starting point for the modern left has to be to understand the new world.

There are many ways of describing the changing context for what the US columnist David Brooks has called the debate about how to rejuvenate mature industrialised societies. To my eye, there are four key global changes under way that explain why this feels like a decade of disorder. 
 
There is the shift in economic power from west to east (and to some extent from north to south), as outsourcing and what Al Gore calls “robo-sourcing” (that is, technological change) alter the economic prospects of millions of people. As many as 50 million people a year are joining the global middle class in Asia, while norms of employment are being overturned. This has huge domestic consequences in industrialised societies, but is also creating a new power structure in the international system.
 
There is the resource crunch, which predated the credit crunch and is exemplified by a mismatch in the supply and demand for resources that is driving up their prices. Shale gas discoveries in the US are important but they do not invalidate this issue. The oil price remains high and non-oil commodities have risen fast enough in the past decade to eradicate the price cuts of the previous hundred years. As the urban middle-class global population is continuing to grow, it is hard to see this trend going into reverse. 
 
There is the radical extension of the open society to the nooks and crannies of economic and social life, public and personal. This is fuelling democratic revolutions in the undemocratic world and frustration with democracy as conventionally practised in the established democracies. Across the public-private divide, the bar for the legitimate exercise of authority is being raised. This is a good thing.
 
And then there is the pressing nature of interdependence, local and international, that demands new forms of co-operation at precisely the time when people want more power for themselves. The Lehman moment showed that the pre-existing definition of which institutions posed systemic risk was not properly thought through. 
 
It is the interaction of these global changes that has reframed the political equation in western democracies. The welfare state is costing more, but investment in supporting wealth creation constitutes an increasingly urgent claim on public funds. Wages are being squeezed and immigration is causing resentment. There is a crisis of employment and opportunity among young people, but they don’t vote in heavy numbers, so politics is skewed towards the old. The shift to low carbon is a necessity, but there is a collectiveaction problem when global negotiations are stuck. Societies have become more diverse in cultural as well as racial terms, and this has opened up a challenging axis of division in politics, which makes the construction of coherent electoral and governing coalitions more difficult. The putative conflict between cosmopolitans and communitarians has been a real one.
 
In the 1990s it seemed that economics and politics were pushing in the same direction. Globalisation was driving down inflation by producing goods in developing countries at low prices to satisfy western demand; education and training were offering opportunities for greater social mobility; social justice seemed like the counterpart of economic efficiency. The heart of the conundrum facing centre-left parties today is that economics and politics are systematically pulling in opposite directions. The economics calls for more sharing of sovereignty, but the politics is more nationalist or localist. The economics calls for more migration, the politics for less. The economics says switch welfare spending from the old to the young, but the politics of that are horrible. And so on.
 
Meanwhile, politics itself is increasingly seen as broken – and not merely seen as broken but actually broken. This is not just about corruption scandals. It is also about political systems that, for too many people, have lost their capacity to engage and include. Party systems are controlled by small groups (President François Hollande’s exemplary election by open primary excepted). Big money creates a sense of popular disempowerment. Parliaments are gridlocked and enfeebled. For parties of the left, which take pride in the power of politics to check the abuse of power in markets, these are not peripheral concerns. They are the basis for rethinking.
 
It is not that the centre left is wrong to continue to see the importance of Keynesian insights, or wrong to see an important role for government in economy and society, or wrong to defend the poorest, who rely on the welfare state. It is that these articles of faith are insufficient for navigating the rapids of government. 
 
I was once told by a Swedish friend of mine – a successful politician in his own right – that good politics starts with empathy, then proceeds to analysis, then sets out values and establishes the vision, before getting to the nitty-gritty of policy solutions. A lot of politics focuses on the last point, but maybe that is why it fails to connect to a lot of the public. It seems to me that if this is right, three sets of issues, interlocking in nature, will be defining for the future of the centre left.
 
The first is how we respond to the people’s desire for more protection from risks beyond their control – without falling into the trap of big-state solutions that are neither affordable nor deliverable. These can be global risks of an economic, environmental or securityrelated nature. They can be personal risks, such as unemployment, dementia or crime. In each case the old mechanisms for collective insurance against risk through the state are under pressure. 
 
The second is how we meet people’s expectations for more power and control over their own lives – at a time when interdependence and inequality are making this seem like a pipe dream. The sense of disempowerment can be economic, in workplaces that lack the collective power of trade unions and where employee satisfaction and opportunity are limited. It can be social, in communities where crime or neglect sap individual and collective strength. Or it can be in public services, where budgets or decisions are out of the reach of the people who use the services.
 
In truth, the “Third Way” discussions of the 1990s were too weak in addressing issues of economic power, in the workplace and elsewhere. There seemed to be sufficient common ground to facilitate win-win solutions. But the stagnation of wages, among other matters, has shown that this perception was optimistic at best. Economic empowerment needs a harder edge. 
 
The third is how to foster a sense of belonging when people are more mobile and identities more complex. This is partly, but not only, about immigration. It is also about the loneliness of too many elderly people and the lack of security of people of all ages. 
 
Each of these areas of study captures socialdemocratic concerns with equity and mutuality. But they look at them in different ways, through the lens of the way people lead their lives, rather than the overall structure of society. What is more, they challenge the stilldominant paradigm of Anglo-Saxon politics: for or against state or market, for or against public or private sector. They speak much more clearly to the continental European notion of a social-market economy, in which public values and mores define market rules and norms, and in which the state is respectful of private enterprise and personal liberty. Where Labour had ended up in Britain by 2010 – too hands-on with the state and too hands-off with the market – shows the perils of not getting this clear. 
 
So what is the way forward? Away from the tactical battles that dominate day-to-day politics, the lessons from the successes – like that of President Obama – and the struggles, seem to me as follows.
 
The first is that, while fiscal stimulus may be a short-term remedy for low demand, fiscal prudence is a medium-term necessity. Keynesianism is after all a hard taskmaster. 
 
The second is that the politics of production requires social democrats to address the structural challenges to western economies as engines of wealth creation. Sometimes this challenge is reduced to a debate about the importance of “manufacturing”, but that is not enough, as the border between manufacturing and services becomes blurred, and as services take up a much larger share of the economy and require ever higher degrees of skill. 
 
The third is that the tendency of markets towards inequality and instability needs to be countered by action upstream in order to curb abuse of power, and to empower citizens and employees with rights, information and control. “Predistribution” does not fit on an electoral pledge card, but the idea is right and so is the challenge of developing new ways, either through individual rights or collective organisation, to tilt the balance of power towards ordinary people.
 
The fourth is that the state needs to do more with less, and that requires big reform. Reform is one of those words that can lose meaning through excessive and loose use. But for social democrats the specifics of decentralisation of power, transfer of budgets from managers to people, integration of back offices, and challenge from private- and voluntary-sector providers should all be geared towards the goal of a public sphere that can serve its founding purpose: representing the public and its interest against threats of injustice and insecurity. That the Tories will try to use their bungled NHS changes as an excuse for an assault on the very universality of the health service shows how high the stakes are. 
 
The fifth lesson is that fighting globalisation is futile and damaging, but the processes of global integration nevertheless need to be managed by regional co-operation in the absence of stronger global governance. It is striking that, despite the travails of the European Union, around the world there is a tendency towards regional association – in the Pacific Alliance in South America, for example (its GDP is 20 per cent greater than Brazil’s). This is the way for medium-sized states to have influence.
 
The sixth message is that the challenge for parties and politics is as big as the challenge to policy. Assembling a winning coalition is one thing; holding it is harder. That makes the achievement of the Obama campaign quite remarkable. He was helped by his opponent, but he made his own luck through a drive street by street and voter by voter to maintain his winning coalition. Presidential elections are different from parliamentary systems, but there is read-across nonetheless. 
 
Politics is more open than for many years – and there is a lot to fight for. I will be fighting a different set of battles, but I leave Britain confident that Labour can win.
 
David Miliband becomes president and chief executive of International Rescue Committee next month. This essay is an edited version of the foreword to Policy Network’s “Progressive Politics After the Crash: Governing from the Left”(edited by Olaf Cramme, Patrick Diamond and Michael McTernan), which will be published by I B Tauris on 4 September

 

Illustration: Francesco Bongiorni / Eastwing Illustration

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle