Interview: David Miliband

The foreign secretary explains he has identified four great progressive causes for the world.

The timing is awkward. David Miliband has been urged by his top mandarins to cancel our interview. They don't want us in the building, after their case against our whistleblower Derek Pasquill collapsed so ignominiously at the Old Bailey. Miliband, to his credit, politely declined their advice. We had agreed a long time beforehand to talk about his new world order, which he was preparing to set out in a speech to the Fabian Society's annual conference.

By way of an opener, we ask the Foreign Secretary to assess the state of play in British politics. He launches into a soliloquy: "The Arsène Wenger school of management says that you focus on your own team . . . and let the oppos ition take care of themselves. We've got a con viction leader who is determined to ensure that ideas as well as competence are at the heart of government. There is a genuine crisis of Conservatism and the fulcrum of it is how you reconcile a belief in markets with a belief in social order. It's unreconciled at a philosophical level and an intellectual level, and that's why you see it unreconciled at a political level."

Miliband has invented a catchphrase - the "civ il ian surge". He develops this theme: "There are 200 million Chinese learning English; there are more bloggers in Iran than any other country in the world per capita; Buddhist monks march for democracy in Burma. I got the idea of a civilian surge when I was talking to David Petraeus [the US military commander] in Iraq because, he says, 'You can't kill your way out of this problem - you need politics as well as security.'"

There are four great causes in current foreign policy, Miliband says. He lists them: tackle terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, "and that's what we're trying to do in Afghanistan"; try to reduce conflict, "and that's what we're trying to do in the Middle East, Kosovo and Sudan"; tackle inequality through low-carbon, high-growth economic aid and development policies, "and that's what we're trying to do in Bali and elsewhere"; and build durable international institutions that recognise international inter dependence, "and that's what we're trying to do with the EU and the UN". These, he says, "are all great progressive causes".

Democracy or security?

Miliband is seeking to reconcile what he calls "the old Westphalian settlement, which says we have no business being concerned with what goes on in other countries", with the mistakes of Iraq. He suggests that the present Tory position of David Cameron and William Hague is not unlike that of John Major and Douglas Hurd when the west stood back and allowed the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda to take place.

We talk in detail about Tony Blair's criteria for "humanitarian intervention", and how it foun dered in Iraq. "People say, and I say myself, there are no military solutions. There are military victories, but then you've got to win the peace. That means building the institutions of civic society, and that's true in all the places where our military are deployed," he says. "It's the old argument of: 'Do you want democracy first or security first?' Actually, it's the wrong question because sequencing doesn't work. You can't have democracy without security, and as we're seeing in places like Pakistan, if you want true security you need democracy as well."

And was Iraq a great cause? Perhaps for fear of antagonising a US administration wary of the new incumbent in Downing Street, he is strange ly robust. "The idea that Iraqi citizens should be able to determine their own futures, in a democratic system that respects human rights - that's a progressive thing to want to do." So was it a progressive war? "The aim, which was to free the Iraqi people from a tyranny, is of course a progressive thing. Twelve million Iraqis went out to vote. Now, there's all sorts of things we could talk about - there are lessons, there are things that haven't gone right . . ." We put it again. Is he really proud that Britain went to war?

At this point he draws back. "A lot of our people have died. A much larger number of Iraqis have died. You have to have a lot of humility about what happened. I believe this was done for the right reasons - I don't believe the conspiracy theories. I believe it was done after a lot of hard thought and a lot of hard searching.

"The fifth anniversary invites us not to put a glib label on it, but to make sure Britain and the international community are more united about the next five years. There is a real opportunity, without pre judice to any of the deeply held views of New Statesman readers and others about the wisdom of the original decision, to say: 'Where we are now, what does Iraq need?' It needs political reconciliation, it needs economic reconstruction and it needs continued commitment to the security of the people there."

We press him on Iran. Miliband supports the US, but puts his own gloss on the issue. "Iran is a sponsor of terrorism. It is a potential source of conflict." He elaborates. "It's a country that should be contributing all its riches and all its people to a stable international community. That doesn't require a change of regime in Iran, it requires a change of behaviour on the part of the regime.

"The challenge is to make clear that the international community is serious about the stability we say is important, but also show that we're serious about the offer we're making [to Iran] to engage with the international community."

Whatever happened, we wonder, to the neoconservative dream that Blair seized on with such alacrity? "What do they say is the definition of a neocon? A liberal who's been mugged. People who came out of the 1960s, but who had lost their faith in progressive policy because they said we weren't hard-headed enough," he replies. "Now the PM says our foreign policy is going to be defined by hard-headed internationalism. The military can't bring you the solution alone, but sometimes you need the military. In Darfur, we need an African Union/UN force. It's the progressive position to say economics and politics and social intervention where possible, military intervention where necessary." He adds: "We shouldn't cede the ground of universal values to the neocons."

Miliband develops his challenge to the left, saying it should do more to reappraise the relationship between state and individual. "On its own, social democracy is not adequate for this changing world. It's necessary but not sufficient. On the other hand, you've got a progressive tradition of radical liberalism . . . whose defining belief is the idea of individual freedom in the market economy. But it's not enough, because it's got no answer for distributional questions that are thrown up - the inequality questions. The politics that will address the 21st century is the fus ion of the social democratic commitment to social justice through collective action, not just through the state."

He talks of combining a greater emphasis on civil liberties with the need, post the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, for security. He produces a curious approach to pre-trial detention. Once you have agreed on the need for any length of time you have established a principle, he says. "There's no magic in any number. What there should be is robustness and integrity in the processes. In dividual liberties depend on strong checks and balances." The longer anyone is held, the greater should be the scrutiny, Miliband says, but there need be no limit.

We turn to the issue that has caused such discomfort: the collapse at the Old Bailey of the prosecution of a Foreign Office official, Derek Pasquill, under the Official Secrets Act. It is our contention that this was a malicious prosecution pushed by the Foreign Office, even in the know ledge that the case would not stand up. This is now the second instance of an OSA trial foun dering, and we ask Miliband if the act should be reformed. "You always have to be open-minded about this. Have I been persuaded of the case for change? No. Do I rule out that it might need to be changed? No."

Does he not recall that Labour advocated such a reform when in opposition, particularly the inclusion of a public-interest defence? Miliband appears not to be aware of this. "I need to go and do some further research before I get drawn into that." And what of the principles of the case? "In principle, I think the confidentiality of government discussions is absolutely essential to effective government and I think we need a very effective regime to police that."

Religion and terror

We press him on our demand for an inquiry. He bridles. "I'm not going to get into any individual case. There are internal disciplinary issues relat ed to the leaks and I'm not going to say anything about it." What if someone at the Foreign Office had misled the courts? "Any suggestion of that is a matter for investigation by the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] on the back of a complaint.

"We are a department that always seeks to make sure it upholds the highest standards of government, and we always look at our own procedures and processes to make sure that happens." He concludes: "I've seen nothing to suggest that there weren't appropriate and high standards followed all the way through. But you're not going to tempt me into discussion on this."

We move to the broader issue of engaging with Islam. Miliband describes this as a two-strand approach involving security and "hearts and minds". He has been persuaded by studies that suggest "you don't confuse degree of religiosity with propensity to terrorism". He adds: "We're much further ahead than we were three or four years ago in understanding what we're dealing with and how it feeds off grievance, both real and alleged. What we're clear about is that we're trying to counter insurgency, not counter people's religious freedoms. We're trying to avoid a clash of civilisations, rather than prosecute one."

Amid reports of the odd disagreement with Downing Street, and with a new baby on the home front, we ask him if he is enjoying his job. "It's a fantastic job. Great job. All these jobs are very demanding, but it's a great job to do. It's a huge privilege to do this." Miliband is curious to know why we called it the "Edward Stourton question". Because, we advise him, that was the question on the Today programme that stumped the Prime Minister. He winces.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Photo; Getty
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How Jean-Luc Mélenchon built a resistance

Like Jeremy Corbyn, France's leftist candidate for the presidency has been caricatured by the media. Nonetheless, he has succeeded in building a movement. 

After months of indifference, the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the French presidential race has finally caught the attention of the British media. Still, it is frequently misrepresented and reduced to familiar categories: populism, Euroscepticism and spendthriftedness, with commentators quick to draw parallels with Jeremy Corbyn. However, to boil down the Mélenchon phenomenon to such clichés is to fundamentally misunderstand it. 

The authors of this article propose taking a closer look at a highly innovative manifesto and campaign. Cambridge University lecturer Olivier Tonneau is involved with La France Insoumise (France Defiant) and co-authored the cartoon version of Mélenchon’s programme. He runs a blog dedicated to exposing its policies and addressing the many rumours and falsehoods floated about the candidate. Nick Jones is a student who was in Paris at the time of Nuit Debout, and experienced first-hand the energy and thirst for radical change in France.

***

Given the deep wound that Brexit has inflicted upon British society, perhaps the most urgent clarification is that Mélenchon does not wish to leave the EU, although he does have a radical strategy to reform it. France and Britain have different relations to the EU. Whilst Britain’s austerity policies were self-inflicted, the same is not true of France. The French people voted “no” to the European constitution in 2005 only to see its vote overturned in Parliament by a coalition of the center-left and center-right parties. This event marked a tectonic shift in French politics, and incidentally determined Mélenchon’s break from the Socialist Party. In 2012, François Hollande was elected on the promise of renegotiating the Lisbon treaty, a promise he failed to hold, and proceeded to impose austerity measures in France (cutting down public spending and corporate taxes, flexibilising the labour market), constantly justifying these measures by the necessity to abide by European norms. He has thus fuelled a deep resentment against both the center-left and the EU. Meanwhile, Mélenchon has campaigned for a showdown with the EU: reform it or leave it (“plan A, plan B”).

His strategy, designed by his chief economist Jacques Généreux, consists of unilaterally disobeying European Treatises: disregarding budgetary norms to implement a Keynesian stimulus package, creating a public investment bank, and ending privatisation policies. His prognosis is that the EU will not dare exclude France because such an exclusion would signal the end of the European project altogether. The EU will thus have to inscribe French exceptions to the treatises (just as it had done for UK). Such exceptions could prove highly desirable to other austerity-stricken countries such as the infamous PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), with enormous pressure placed on the most intransigent promoters of austerity, the chief of which is Germany.

Far from being anti-European, this strategy is aimed to save the European project which, according to Généreux, is doomed to implode if unreformed. Généreux had reached this conclusion as early as 2012: Brexit and the European-wide rise of the far-right has confirmed his diagnosis. Unencumbered by a reluctant party, Mélenchon has been able to forcefully defend a position that Corbyn was unable to hold, thus shattering the “in/out, good/bad” dichotomy of the Remain and Leave campaigns in the UK.

Already, by 2012, Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (co-founded with the Green MP Martine Billard) had published an eco-socialist manifesto which advanced on the Left’s historical bend towards productivism. This time round, Mélenchon’s program is an environmentally focused Keynesian plan. Its aim is to turn France into using 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 – ending the country’s heavy dependence on nuclear power – by implementing the “negawatt scenario” elaborated by a collective of scientists and engineers.

Mélenchon is especially determined to make the most of France’s maritime territory – the second largest in the world. His program also addresses in detail matters of public health: for instance, schools should serve organically sourced products exclusively, securing a market for organic producers. The turn to organic production, for instance, is expected to create 300,000 jobs. Mélenchon’s environmental plans tie in neatly with forensic budgeting and a clear plan for job-growth, in line with the “One Million Climate Jobs Now” campaign in the UK.

Another aspect of Mélenchon’s Keynesian plan is its redistributive policies. Low and middle wages are spent within the economy on essential goods such as food and clothing, whereas high wages are lost in the speculative bubble: by raising the minimum wage, pensions, and social benefits, Mélenchon intends to boost demand and help small and medium businesses prosper. He also acknowledges the need to reduce working time, without necessarily cutting the length of the working week. Instead, he wishes to return the retirement age to 60 – a measure that is acutely urgent given the high unemployment rate among senior citizens – and impose a strict adherence to the current, 35-hour week.

Impossible to fund? Not at all. More than hundred economists from 17 countries – including Ha-Joon Chang – published a column supporting Mélenchon’s program. His policies were presented in details by economists and high-ranking public servants in a 5-hour budget program broadcasted on YouTube, whose last hour was a discussion with economic journalists from liberal news outlets. Ghilaine Ottenheimer from Challenge praised the broadcast as “modern” and “bold”; Hedwige Chevrillon (BFM Business) compared the approach to that of the ‘slow food movement’ and deemed it a rare opportunity to think things through; Marc Landré (Le Figaro) was impressed by the openness with which La France Insoumise was laying itself open to criticism.

The broadcast has already been viewed more than half a million times. On every aspect of its program, from the environment to counter-terrorism via culture and international relations, La France Insoumise has taken the same care to involve experts. Who, then, are the ‘Insoumis’? How did such an extraordinary campaign get off the ground? This question takes us back to 2012.

***

After Mélenchon’s remarkable 2012 campaign, the Front de Gauche fell apart because of strategic disagreements: the Communist Party wanted to maintain alliances with the Socialist Party whereas Mélenchon was convinced that any association with the now hugely-unpopular party of Hollande could only drag them with its fall. When Mélenchon claimed in 2015 that he did not aim to ‘unite the left’ but to ‘federate the people’, it was widely perceived as the desperate gambit of an isolated figure. And yet the gambit paid off: there was indeed a people to answer his call. With the massive demonstrations against Macron’s labour laws and the grassroots movement Nuit Debout, the writing was on the wall. Mélenchon was careful not to lay claims to these movements which were profoundly suspicious of established politicians and parties, but he has nevertheless been able to tap into their energy by creating La France Insoumise, a loose structure within which everybody contributes freely.

The Insoumis have shown ebullient creativity: some created a board game, others a computer game (Fiscal Kombat), and one of the authors of the present article wrote a comic book adaptation of the manifesto. Alongside quirky stunts such as appearing at meetings via hologram, the Insoumis have brought a vitally seductive and energetic edge to Mélenchon’s campaign. Crucially, they have brought to fruition another aspect of Mélenchon’s strategy: his struggle against the press.

In 2012, Mélenchon often claimed that the media was the “second skin of the system”. The only way to break the neoliberal hegemony was to subvert its own logic: that of audience and profit. Thus was created the colourful figure who claimed to incarnate “the sound and the fury of his time”. Yet, having become a celebrity, Mélenchon had to avoid being pigeon-holed into a caricature. The media, he claims, are “not a mirror but an arena”, so he adopted a confrontational strategy aimed at exposing the biases of journalists and interviewers.

Yet there is only so much one can say in the constraining format of TV and radio interviews; all one could achieve was to fire “bullet words” that would open cracks in the listeners’ preconceptions. In response, listeners had to be provided with alternative sources of information. In 2012, Mélenchon’s blog was the most read of any French politician; in 2013, a galaxy of “6th Republic blogs” was created; in 2016 Mélenchon’s extremely successful YouTube channel was launched; it has so far has over 22 million views. The book detailing his manifesto, L’Avenir en commun (A Shared Future) has found its way into bestseller lists, shifting well over 250,000 copies. If such independently-made material is inaccessible to non-French speakers, international viewers should not be tricked into seeing it as Trump-style, anti-system fake news. For example, a host of global NGOs including Oxfam and ActionAid have backed key aspects of Mélenchon’s campaign, with Amnesty and Greenpeace ranking him highest overall in their breakdown of all the candidate’s policies. Leading economists have also signed a pledge backing his candidacy will be published this week.

The communication machine of Defiant France is firing on all cylinders. It is remarkable that the fear-mongering of the mainstream media has failed to halt Mélenchon’s surge in the polls – remarkable, but not surprising given that his latest meeting, in Toulouse, was attended by 70,000 people, and had attracted 320,000 views on YouTube in under 24 hours. 

***

Do not be mistaken: something astonishing is happening. This is about much more than meeting attendance. To be sure, Mélenchon is not simply preaching to the choir: bucking all recent trends, recent polls have shown that he is denting Marine Le Pen’s share of the working-class vote, and has overtaken her as the most favoured candidate of the youth. People are flocking from all across the political spectrum: recently, an entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley published a piece titled If Mélenchon is elected, I return to France.

He is not an isolated case, and a petition of the entrepreneurs with Mélenchon has just been launched. Even the ‘Gaullists’, disillusioned with the Fillon scandals, are now seduced by Mélenchon’s cultural style, his integrity, and his vision of France’s place in the world which is in line with the tradition of the General himself. What seemed like a fanciful vision is thus coming true: the French people is being transformed. One of the most striking signs of the campaign’s success is the change in people’s priorities: whilst employment had always ranked first, it has now been displaced by institutional reform. This, of course, is intrinsically tied to the centrepiece of Mélenchon’s program, which aims to accomplish no less than a Révolution citoyenne: creating the 6th Republic by means of a Constituent Assembly.

Under the Nazi Occupation of France, resistance networks sought not only to liberate the country, but also to bring about a better world. At great peril, they formed the National Resistance Council and drafted a program which was circulated under the cover of a novel titled Les Jours Heureux. It is no coincidence that the crowds at Mélenchon’s meetings do not chant his name but the word “resistance”, and that Melenchon himself synthetizes his aim with the phrase “let us bring forth the happy days”. The perils are undoubtedly lesser but with a deeply dysfunctional economic system preventing us from addressing climate change and fuelling the rise of the far-right, the stakes may be even higher.

Olivier Tonneau is lecturer in Modern and Medieval Languages at Homerton College, Cambridge. He participates in La France Insoumise, the movement supporting Jean-Luc mélenchon's presidential campaign. He writes a blog on French politics. Nick Jones is in the final year of his undergraduate degree studying French at Homerton. During his year abroad in Paris, he was a participant in, and keen observer of, the grassroots movement Nuit Debout. 

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