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New Times: David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

Miliband explains why credible values are the bedrock of radicalism – and why not everyone who disagrees with Corbyn is a closet Tory.

Brexit creates significant new challenges for the British left. It torpedoes some great gains, making discretionary various social, political, economic and environmental rights that have become mandatory over the past two generations. And it creates a whole new series of traps for progressive politics.

But Brexit also reflects the weakness of the left in the UK. In fact, Brexit was only possible because of Labour’s shift over the past ten years from a powerful governing majority to a secondary influence on national decision-making. The future of the left is about more than Labour, and about more than parliamentary representation, but only if we understand this shift can the challenges of Brexit be addressed.

Ten years ago Labour in Britain defined the contours of political debate. We had won three elections on the trot and the Tories felt the need to dance to our tunes – from the minimum wage to tripling of overseas aid to gay rights to boosting the National Health Service. Now Labour sits a long way from power, even before boundary changes. The ultimate ignominy of not being able to organise our own party conference has been avoided, but we have not been further from power since the 1930s.

The shift from the mainstream to the margins has not been the product of a series of unfortunate accidents. That would be a reason for sorrow. Yet frustration or anger is more appropriate, because the political situation of Labour is the product of a series of choices. Some of them have been small, others large, but together they have turned the party inwards rather than outwards, looking to the past rather than to new ideas, resting on easy rhetoric rather than taking hard decisions – and above all seeking to distance ourselves from our time in government, rather than building on it, in terms of both policy content and political culture and dynamic.

The party has ended up pre-New Labour in policy and culture, when we need to be post-New Labour. This year’s leadership election has spent a lot of time debating how to “bring back” various lost icons, such as nationalised railways, rather than focusing on new ideas for the future.

The main charge against Jeremy Corbyn is not just that his strategy is undesirable because it makes the party unelectable. That is only half the story. The real issue is that his strategy makes the party unelectable ­because it is in many aspects undesirable.

This is true most egregiously with regard to foreign policy. The half-hearted message about Europe is a betrayal of millions of working people. The equivocation on Nato in the face of Russia’s intimidation of nations
in her former sphere of influence is dangerous and throws away progressive values.

But the electorate can see through the domestic policy, too. Nationalisation cannot be the answer to everything; anti-austerity speeches cannot explain everything; cor­porate taxation cannot pay for everything. It doesn’t add up. It wouldn’t work. People are not stupid.

There is one other element that is not only undesirable, but disastrous. It is the critique that everyone who disagrees with Jeremy Corbyn is in fact a closet Tory – or “Tory lite”. The US Republicans have a similar problem, with anyone to the left of the hard right called “Rino”, meaning “Republican In Name Only”.

The “Tory lite” allegation starts with a fact: government involves compromise. It then fashions an explanation: that the compromise is based on bad motives. It then develops a theory: that the trajectory of our country has been unchanged by Labour government since the Thatcher years. It then creates a new version of history: there is no difference between Labour and Tory governments. This is the sectarianism that leads to the dead end of permanent opposition.

The truth is that global markets, or ­“turbocapitalism”, are rewriting the rules in the economy and beyond. The extremes of income, wealth, innovation, degradation, inspiration, cruelty and humanity of this, the first period in history of truly global capitalism, are reflected in our politics. Globalisation has created inequalities of income, wealth and power that challenge the traditional answers of the centre left. And globalisation has challenged social norms in a way that has broken the back of the traditional centre right.

So the left needs to renew itself in the same way as during three previous periods in the wilderness – first in the 1930s, then in the 1950s, then in the 1980s/1990s. Each time three questions were defining. Only when the left found the right answer to all three did it become a party of government.

The first question is whether the left puts values above doctrine. In other words, is it dogmatic about ends (values) or means (doctrine)? When Labour becomes trapped by policy positions, it loses, because the public thinks it puts dogma above ideals. When it puts values in the driving seat –what is sometimes called “ethical socialism” – then policy imagination is the result. When it is willing to use markets and the voluntary sector as well as the state as agents of change, the left in Britain and around Europe has shown the capacity not only to win the confidence of the public but also to change the country. This is especially important when politics is in such flux. Theresa May’s nods towards a more equal society show the power of our values. But the public wants new and effective ideas to achieve them.

The second question is whether the left has policies for wealth creation as well as fair distribution. This is especially important today because there is so much evidence that inequality is economically inefficient. But tackling inequality is necessary, yet not sufficient to grow the economy. The ­former US treasury secretary Larry Summers’s work on “secular stagnation” shows the demand-side and supply-side dangers facing the global economy. Policy development is vitally needed in both areas to help avoid the trap of low growth and high inequality. More public spending on its own does not spring this trap – and, in the absence of serious ideas for raising productivity, will not work. A small example: “city regions” were a Labour idea ten years ago to drive economic growth from the ground up, long before George Osborne discovered the “Northern Powerhouse”, but were not developed.

The third is whether the left has an international perspective as well as a national one. In the 1930s this was about appeasement. In the 1980s it was about Europe. And today Europe is again the fulcrum. The temptation will be to chase Euroscepticism. This would be a huge error. Now is the time to set clear tests for the government’s negotiations with the European Union, to show how a progressive approach to engagement with the EU helps manage globalisation, rather than turn our backs on it. Nationalist isolationism of the left (or the right) offers no answers in an age of interdependence.

The issues today are momentous: whether global capitalism has more bust than boom; whether we can sustain Western liberal values in the face of global pressures; whether the climate crisis is past resolution; whether the people I work for – refugees and the displaced – will ever find a home; whether public services can survive the flight of capital from Western tax authorities; whether democratic norms can survive the tyranny of flash mobs.

These challenges cry out for a relevant, persuasive, open-minded left. It is tempting to believe that the need for credibility blocks radicalism. That is the Corbyn/Sanders argument. In fact, the truth is the opposite. Credibility is the foundation of radicalism. If you are not credible on your intentions, your trustworthiness, your judgement, your character, your instincts, then your radical policies will never be given the chance to breathe. But establish that foundation, and there is a majority to be made. Just look at the new Liberal government in Canada.

There is a host of contingent and tactical issues that needs to be addressed by those active on the political stage. But the structural and strategic issues listed here are a matter for us all. 

David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, was the Labour MP for South Shields (2001-2013). He writes here in a personal capacity

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces 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 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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