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David Miliband: Labour cannot be conservative

New Statesman guest editor's leading article.

Parliament packs up for the summer holidays on Tuesday. This time last year, Labour was nervous and the Conservatives were enjoying themselves. Now, the positions seem to be reversed. The Liberals are at least consistent – but gallows humour is not very attractive in politics.

There are risks for both main parties over the next year, the biggest of which is that many voters see politics as broken, having nothing to do with their lives and offering no solutions to the country’s problems. As the economy stagnates, politics needs to respond with vigour and imagination.

The danger for the Tories is to become consumed with political tactics at the expense of running the country. That is the most obvious explanation for the lurches and U-turns since the Budget in March. The crudity of George Osborne’s smear campaign against Ed Balls over the LIBOR fixing scandal suggests he is going to fall deeper into the trap.

The risk for Labour supporters is different. According to a recent ComRes poll, 74 per cent of them now expect the Tories to lose the next election. The danger is to confuse being a better opposition with becoming a potential government.

Labour has been calm, united (the attacks on the think tank Progress aside) and quick to point out Tory weakness and hypocrisy. Yet the Tories still stand on 35 per cent in the latest YouGov poll, giving weight to Ed Miliband’s warning after the May local elections that Labour’s next task was to become a magnet for votes, not just a receptacle for them.

Finding a voice

“The left needs to find a voice.” So wrote the historian of Europe and the left Tony Judt in one of his last books, Ill Fares the Land. Judt excoriated the cruelties, injustices and stupidities of western societies. But his book also exposed the main dilemma that parties of the centre left need to resolve.

Judt contended that, in seeking a better future, the left in recent decades has lost sight of the strong inheritance from the past. He advocated “defensive” social democracy, because “the left has something to conserve”.

At a time of austerity and recession, with a madcap reorganisation of the NHS and the Prime Minister’s demotic recycling of Peter Lilley’s 1992 Conservative party conference speech and its “little list” of benefit scroungers and welfare queens, you can see Judt’s point. There is a lot to defend.

Defensive social democracy won Harold Wilson the 1974 elections in Britain (just). More recently, centre-left parties in Denmark and France have kept their heads down and benefited from a swing against the right. But if defensive social democracy delivers a win – and it is a big if – the problem will be with governing. Economic power is shifting to the east, putting huge pressure on tax revenues. Meanwhile social needs are rising – because of economic inequality (including 25 million unemployed in Europe), on the one hand, and social pressures from demographic changes, on the other. In France, President Hollande is facing that reality as he looks to square the financial realities of an independent budget audit with electoral commitments.

Labour’s history is that it wins and governs when it aligns an economic narrative of modernisation with a social agenda of compassion and a political culture of dynamism and pro­gress. In 1945, the story was national renewal; in 1964, the scientific revolution; in 1997, a meritocratic Britain.

Today, Labour has a disruptive economic narrative – that Britain needs fundamental change in its market structure and culture to compete in the modern world. This is bold. Given the crash, it is also necessary. We could do worse than take Vince Cable’s 2012 Budget submission to the Chancellor, bemoaning the lack of a plan for growth and setting out how to deliver one, and promise to implement it.

There are big choices on social policy, too. Three areas cry out for attention: housing, childcare and eldercare. The fiscal situation is bleak. Labour needs to make “switch spends”, the difficult process of shifting expenditure to reflect priorities, not just renew commitments to “tax and spend”.

The think tank IPPR has proposed that housing benefit and housebuilding budgets should be combined and devolved to cities. There would be local decision-making about the balance between rent subsidy and housing investment. IPPR has also shown how a ten-year freeze on child benefit could pay for universal affordable childcare. Meanwhile, long-term care funding has been locked in the “too difficult” box for three decades because the extra public funding required – which the recent Dilnot commission now estimates to be £1.7bn rising to £3.6bn a year – has never been looked at alongside other funding for old age, from tax reliefs to pensioner benefits.

There are pros and cons to moves in any of these areas. The point is that defence of the status quo cannot deliver our goals. The Nordic countries have used family policy, including childcare, to create jobs and promote social integration. The German Social Democratic Party developed its “dual flexibility” programme – in export industries and the service sector – to drive the country forward. Neither strategy guaranteed votes – but they have helped build economies and societies we admire. We need to occupy that space, building a different kind of social market economy for the modern age.

Opening up the conversation

These are the kinds of issues that Jon Cruddas can get his teeth into as Labour’s policy tsar. He is not a policy wonk – a great advantage. Policy is where choices get made; but it is politics that opens up the choices rather than closing them down. Good politics starts with empathy, proceeds to analysis, then sets out values and establishes the vision, before getting to the nitty-gritty of policy solutions.

Political reform is not a diversion from this agenda. It is vital to it. In developing new policies, Labour cannot afford the old politics of a conversation with itself. Winning the public round to an agenda of real change is not about conference resolutions. It is about daily engagement with the people leading change in communities.

People know that the Tories are empty and tactical. They have rumbled that there is no Cameron “project” for the country. Now they want to discover what ours might be. And here, we have one great advantage. In the 1980s local government lost Labour votes. In the 2010s it can be the forcing house of new ideas on the economy, social security, crime and housing. It can pioneer a different conversation with the public.

People are frightened. Tactical Tory populism can have resonance. Their aim on Europe, immigration and the welfare state is to fuse a story about issues of identity and culture with one about economics. They must not be allowed to pull it off. Serious, credible actions and ideas are the best antidote. Tony Judt said in his book that “social democracy cannot just be about preserving worthy institutions as a defence against worse options”. Sadly, he did not live to contribute to that process, but the message is right. As it plots its next steps, Labour cannot be conservative. The prize is not just winning – it is being able to change the country again. 

David Miliband is the guest editor of this week's New Statesman. The magazine, cover-dated 16 July, will be on sale in London on Thursday 12 July and in the rest of the country from Friday 13 July. Domestic and international purchasers can obtain single issue copies here


David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.