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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.