Why Miliband was right

Denis MacShane attacks the unnamed briefers and those in the media who would knife Gordon Brown. It'

It is shortly after sun-rise on Wednesday morning in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Andalucia. I am in despair at the behaviour of ministers and MPs who were briefing against Gordon Brown once the Glasgow by-election result came in. Then the phone rings. It is the Today programme. Would I like to comment on David Miliband’s article in the Guardian? What article? They send it over on my Blackberry.

It is like a breath of fresh air after the stale self-indulgent solipsism from Warwick. It attacks the Tories. Hooray! It sets out Labour’s mistakes – not under Brown’s brief premiership but strategic wrong turns or failures to get out of first gear since 1997. At last! It suggests that Labour needs to do. On the record. Signed by a senior cabinet minister. About time!

So I tell Today I would like to comment and invite other ministers and MPs top attack the Tories and to discuss ideas and ideology and not personality. Big mistake. The phone goes silent as all the BBC wants from me as a Labour MP is to join in the get-Gordon dance.

I have written on the record in the Yorkshire Post and elsewhere that Brown has taken big decisions in the long-term national interest. But after 11 years of the same government, it is now hard pounding. The Guardian comment pages are now full of hate and loathing for a Labour government. Having buried Blair the paper’s columnists want to knife Brown.

So to read in the Guardian a sustained attack on eternal lightness of Cameron and the non-policy of the bunch of millionaires who now occupy the Tory front bench was a treat. I said we should follow ‘Miliband’s leadership and turn our fire on a Tory Party not yet fit for purpose and power.’ Within minutes the invitation to attack the Tories was subbed out and the sentence deformed to imply support for a non-existent leadership claim by David Miliband.

Such is today’s press but it has been made far worse by all the attacks on Miliband by unnamed briefers. Instead of welcoming his rallying call to attack the Tories and to support the Government and prime minister the briefers are back running Labour into the ground. I hope Miliband continues to make his case and the maggots briefing against him are squashed.

In 1997, Labour had its personality problems. Just read John Prescott’s comments on Robin Cook or Harriet Harman in his memoirs for a reminder. But there was a serious project for power, hammered out over years of hard work and deep, deep reflection. Once again ideology and ideas and a story that connects to voters needs to be fashioned.

First, Labour needs to understand the deep convulsions of global capitalism following the end of 20th century socialism, in the sense of state control of the economy. In China, the fusion between capitalist economics and communist politics is tilting the world away from democracy and any sense of environmental accountability.

Neo-liberalism too has failed. India, the USA and Europe block the world reforms needed to achieve a trade deal that would lift billions from poverty.

We need more world governance at global and regional level and Labour should be thinking about the new world institutions needed to promote progressive politics. Tory isolationism on Europe is now extremely dangerous to the national interest and should be exposed by ministers and MPs.

Second, have we got the balance right between state, community and individual in Britain? Is the state too big and the citizen too small? My working class constituents feel they pay too many taxes, nationally and locally and do not get an adequate return despite ministeries and town halls patting themselves on the back and awarding nearly £200 million in bonuses to civil servants or giving county council bosses higher salaries than the prime minister.

Labour sees itself as the state. It is the default position of all administrations. But can we re-think the state and see if more autonomy in terms of purchasing power can be left with citizens rather than determined by state bureaucracy?

Third, have we got the nature of work right? We have copied the earned income tax credit, a kind of negative income tax first introduced in the United States in 1978. It has worked but at a price. Employers have not been obliged to upskill workers and unions have not been obliged to rethink organisation so that they control more of the labour market by setting fair wages for all as in Nordic countries.

Fourth, the gaping hole in Labour’s record is housing. Harold Macmillan as Tory housing minister in the 1950s built 300,000 new homes a year, many council houses. Labour has never had a full cabinet rank housing minister. Councils are keen to build new homes. Let them.

Fifth, Labour needs a policy for England. Devolution was right and necessary. The cocky swagger of a nationalist populist Alex Salmond will not last. But Scotland is now moving to being the Catalonia or Quebec of the United Kingdon.

This does not mean the end of Britain any more than Canada or Spain do not exist because of nations within the nation. But it does require Labour to become the party of England – its cities and towns and move from a one-size-fits-all politics and policy as if Tudor-style centralised administration was appropriate for the 21st century.

To achieve that Labour must embrace English culture which today is as much Salman Rushdie as it is Shakespeare. There is plenty in the English canon of culture and political science to be inspired by without importing modish American theories about nudging or the latest Heritage Foundation paper regurgitated by Cameron’s millionaire frontbench.

Ministers are trapped administrating – that is where the word comes from. But they are politicians and must do politics again. Not the disastrous politics of briefing against Brown nor the disastrous politics of attacking Miliband because he manages to sneak an anti-Tory article into the Guardian. Of course personality counts. But none of our great prime ministers – from Gladstone, to Attlee to Thatcher – had smoothie-chops Old Etonian charm, rather the opposite. They had ideas and vision and worked in a team of like-minded visionaries and believers in policy. Labour needs to do likewise.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Minister for Europe

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.