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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

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. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage