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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The 7 brilliant arguments Theresa May once made against Brexit

Just in case you missed them. 

“Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public,” the Prime Minister Theresa May told the Conservative party conference in October. “They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.

“They find the fact that more than seventeen million votes decided to leave the European Union simply bewildering.”

Of course, there was a time not that long ago, when May too found the idea of Brexit pretty bewildering herself. Nicknamed “submarine” during the EU referendum campaign for her low-key support for Remain, she nonetheless had made up her mind it was the right thing to do. 

In a recording obtained by The Guardian, she told an audience at Goldman Sachs that “the economic arguments are clear”. She continued: 

“I think being part of a 500m trading bloc is significant for us. I think one of the issues is a lot of people invest here in the UK because it’s the UK in Europe. 

“I think if we were not in Europe, there would be firms and companies who would be looking to say do they need actually to develop a mainland European presence rather than a UK presence.

But if that hasn’t convinced you, luckily May also made a public case for Remain on 25 April 2016. Here are some of her best points:

1. There’s no such thing as total sovereignty

At conference in October, May said Britain was leaving “to become, once more, a fully sovereign and independent country”. 

But in April, she said that “no country or empire in world history has ever been totally sovereign”. Nation states, she said, have to make a trade off between agreeing to cede some sovereignty “in a controlled way” to prevent a greater loss of sovereignty in an uncontrolled way, such as “military conflict or economic decline”. 

2. It's safer to Remain

In her conference speech, May said she wanted a Brexit deal to include “co-operation on law enforcement and counter-terrorism”. 

In April, though, the then-Home secretary thought it would be a lot simpler just to stay in the EU. She predicted that while a Brexit Britain would still share intelligence, “that does not mean we would be as safe as if we remain”.

For example, May helpfully pointed out, a Britain outside the EU would have no access to the European Arrest Warrant, which allowed her department to extradite more than 5,000 people from Britain to Europe in the last five years. 

She also distinguished between the EU’s freedom of movement rules, and border checks, declaring: “Some people say the EU does not make us more secure because it does not allow us to control our border. But that is not true.”

3. Rules are better than no rules

At conference, May said Brexit would mean “our laws made not in Brussels but in Westminster”. Anyone who believed they were a “citizen of the world” was in fact “a citizen of nowhere”. 

Back in April, she had a more nuanced view. She said Europe had “stumbled its way to war in 1914” because of the “ambiguity of nations’ commitments to one another”. 

She declared: “Nobody should want an end to a rules-based international system.” Although, she did add that reconciling these international systems with democratic government was “one of the great challenges of this century”. 

4. It could break up the UK

In her speech at conference, May took aim at the Scottish Nationalist Party when she blamed “divisive nationalists” for threatening to drive the UK apart. 

When she spoke in April, though, it seemed she might be talking about a different set of nationalists. “If Brexit isn’t fatal to the European Union, we might find that it is fatal to the Union with Scotland,” she warned. 

Scots are more likely to be in favour of the EU than voters in England and Wales, she noted: 

“I do not want the people of Scotland to think that English Eurosceptics put their dislike of Brussels ahead of our bond with Edinburgh and Glasgow. I do not want the European Union to cause the destruction of an older and much more precious Union, the Union between England and Scotland.”

5. Brexit endangers Britain’s financial services industry

In her conference speech, May described London as “the world’s leading financial capital”. 

But according to May circa April 2016, it might not be for much longer. She warned that outside the EU: “There would be little we could do to stop discriminatory policies being introduced, and London’s position as the world’s leading financial centre would be in danger.”

6. Negotiating trade deals won’t be easy

May is a believer in free trade – her conference speech was peppered with references to it – and she has appointed Liam Fox as International Trade secretary to broker new deals.

And she knows how hard that will be. In her April speech, she noted Britain would have to replace 36 existing trade agreements with non-EU countries: “While we could certainly negotiate our own trade agreements, there would be no guarantee that they would be on terms as good as we enjoy now.”

7. Nor is staying in the single market

Even in April, May was clear she thought Britain could survive Brexit, but she was not sure whether it would do so better off.

As she put it: 

"The reality is that we do not know on what terms we would win access to the single market.  We do know that in a negotiation we would need to make concessions in order to access it, and those concessions could well be about accepting EU regulations, over which we would have no say, making financial contributions, just as we do now, accepting free movement rules, just as we do now, or quite possibly all three combined.  

"It is not clear why other EU member states would give Britain a better deal than they themselves enjoy."

Couldn't agree more, Prime Minister. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.