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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

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

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times