David Miliband on what Labour needs to do to win, Blue Labour and his future

"It does feel as if I have been going around attending various versions of my own funeral". Some highlights from a recent evening with the former foreign secretary at the Danish embassy.

Ahead of his departure to the US to lead the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband hosted an evening at the UK Danish Embassy last week, taking questions from an audience of Fabian Society members.

Miliband talked candidly about what Labour needs to do to win in 2015, his regret at not taking up the post of EU foreign policy chief and the significance of ‘Blue Labour’. Here are some highlights from the evening’s Q&A.

What is your take on the current state of play in British politics today?

“Today is an incredible exciting time in British politics for two reasons. Firstly, it is a really open time in politics because the traditional politics of the left, which was about the state providing answers, and the traditional politics of the right of the market finding answers, neither of those are going to meet the challenges of the present. Essentially, what is going on in politics is the centre-right and-centre left are trying to break out of the confines of their own inherited 20th century thinking – without losing the values which are the oxygen of these 20th century movements.

In this time of openness, when your elders are no longer necessarily your betters, the ideas that drive us forward are as likely to come from the young as from others.

What we do know is that successful left-of-centre parties are able to reinvent themselves and think in a way that holds on to the important anchors that brought them into politics in the first place, while at the same time really thinking about the new ways we can put our values into practice.”

Given you’ve got so much to say on the future of British politics, why are you leaving it?

“I’ve got a great opportunity to put my values into practice. The International Rescue Committee is an organisation founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 when he left Germany to flee the Nazis; it has 12,000 staff in 40 countries around the world who are literally doing life saving work, often in places governments can’t go.

For example, in parts of Syria today, there are IRC staff doing life saving work. I’ve got an opportunity within this role to make a real different to people who need help, a voice and representation. Moving to this role is an episode, not an emigration to the US.”

You describe your departure as an episode. What is the duration of that episode?

“Well I haven’t gone yet. When doing a bit of teaching in my old school, one of the kids said ‘I’m doing my A-levels, I’m 17 and I don’t really know what I’m going to do with my life’ and I said, look, I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life either.”

How have the last few weeks been prior to you leaving for the US?

“It does feel as if I have been going around attending various versions of my own funeral, the difference being the corpse in the coffin is still speaking.”

Why did you choose not to take up the post of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs? And do you regret that decision now?

“Well, with hindsight it did turn out to be a shame. The job came up in November 2011 and basically I didn’t want to be a rat leaving a sinking ship. We were five months away from a British general election, I’d spent 20 years trying to build the Labour Party up and having left at that point would have been wrong. I actually remember saying to my wife Louise, I don’t want to be sat in Brussels watching the Labour Party go to hell and so that’s the reason.”

During your time in Westminster, how do you think opportunities for women in politics have changed?

“On the one hand there has been a dramatic numerical break through, achieved through things like all women shortlists, which broke the back of the self-selecting oligarchic practices that we used to see of appointing candidates  because they were perhaps the son of so and so.

Culturally a lot of what passed as acceptable comment in the past doesn’t and isn’t acceptable now. Equally, the demands of politics now are massive and this isn’t conducive with the role of primary career. Things are tough, especially if you are trying to juggle a marginal seat, demands of the constituency and bringing up children.”

How can Labour secure victory in 2015?

“The Labour Party has only ever won elections when it’s been the party of production as well as the party of distribution. If left-wing parties are only about how you distribute the cake, and not how you grow the cake, that’s fine for a theoretical economy model but not for governing the country. So you’ve got to get into the guts of how to link production and distribution.”

What is your view on Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour?

“Your could summarise Blue Labour by saying that by standing for change you mustn’t forget the social ties that bind people together and I think that’s right.

The criticism that New Labour lost a sense of community is a fair argument but, equally, I don’t think you want to flip into a position where you lose the modernising side. What I think marked out the successful elections of ‘97, 2001 and 2005 was that we weren’t just for social democratic virtues, we also had a progressive sense of national modernisation. Those words aren’t quite right, they are too technocratic, but they do sum up a sense of national purpose and progress. For both major parties, I think they are the keys to electoral success.

What I would say is the New Labour critique has force but beware of ending up looking back, rather than looking forward, because politics is always about the future. And the future can never be about remaking old things it’s got to be about retaining or rebuilding old virtues in new ways.

That’s the danger; you can’t do your politics through the rear view mirror.”

Marcus Hobley (@marcushobley) is a freelance commentator specialising in economic and public policy 

David Miliband will shortly become the new president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee in New York. Photograph: Getty Images.

Marcus Hobley is a freelance commentator specialising in economic and public policy

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser