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Sorry, David, you’re not the man to lead Labour

The elder Miliband continues to defend an appalling breach of trust over Iraq.

The New Statesman editorial endorsing Ed Miliband for Labour leader described the decision to invade Iraq as "a great wrong, a moral failure". His brother's support for the war, it implied, was one of the reasons he does not qualify to be the change candidate that Labour and Britain needs. But the British voter is not an especially moral creature. If it was just a matter of right or wrong, however great, David Miliband might lose my vote as well as the NS's support, but he would certainly remain capable of winning an election.

What is summed up in the word "Iraq", however, remains a determining political issue. David's record on it will prevent him from winning a general election. I like David. I admire his energy and he seems to me to be more thorough, hard-working and professional than the other candidates, and to have a greater grasp of policy. These qualities have helped him gain a staggering range of endorsements across the UK media from the Financial Times to the Evening Standard, as the man they can do business with. But the legacy of the Iraq decision overshadows all this. It feeds into quite fundamental issues of trust and the role of the state. Labour will be forced to shape up on both issues to if it is to win back the decisive sectors of the electorate whose vote is not predetermined by party loyalty. David will be skewered.

First, trust. For Labour to win, its leader has to be able to give an honourable account of him or herself. The technical justification for the war was Saddam Hussein's possession of WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, and his refusal to surrender his alleged stockpiles despite UN resolutions requiring him to do so. David said at the NS hustings that if he'd known then that there were not, after all, WMDs in Iraq, he would not have supported the war. Or, to put it another way, that he originally supported it in good faith and let's move on. This positioning -- the decision was wrong but personally he was not -- is hardly honest, even on the narrowest of grounds.

No one who followed it believed that the war was fought because Saddam had WMDs. Tony Blair, as is well documented, had decided soon after 9/11 to support George W Bush, whatever he did. And, as Michael Elliott reported in Time magazine, in February 2002 Bush put his head around the door of a meeting at the White House where three US senators were being briefed by Condi Rice, and told them, "Fuck Saddam, I'm taking him out."

A year later, after Saddam had indeed been taken out, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the war's architects, told Vanity Fair that they settled on WMDs as the casus belli "for bureaucratic reasons". Yes, many intelligence experts thought Saddam had kept some rusting weapons. But no one believed they represented a danger to the west. The exaggeration was worse than contrived.

Take just one example, still unreported because it exposes the Blair regime's clinical disregard for truth: the British government stated in the executive summary of its September 2002 report, "As a result of intelligence we judge that Iraq has continued to produce chemical and biological agents". Blair sexes this up in his foreword: "What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons."

In fact, it was impossible for Saddam to have been producing new chemical agents, let alone chemical weapons, without this being observed by surveillance. The toxicity of the vapours demands massive ventilation for any level of manufacture, and this would have been identified. (See the openDemocracy interview with Ron Manley, who oversaw the destruction of Saddam's chemical armoury after 1991, but was never asked to share his expertise, though still attached to the Ministry of Defence.)

In other words, it is not just that Hans Blix, the head of the UN weapons inspection team, should have been given more time. The UK government was not interested in investigating the seriousness of the alleged "threat" of WMDs. They were a bogey that was itself contrived. Saddam was overthrown because the US knew he was weak, not because he was a danger. For someone in David's position to suggest even now, in public, that had they known there were no WMDs in Iraq the invasion would not have been justified, perpetuates an untruth, namely that the motive of ridding the world of Saddam's WMDs was genuine. The government misled the public about its reason for the war. By pretending otherwise, David continues to justify an appalling breach of confidence.

Room for redemption?

It remains an abuse of trust that angers the principled right, which draws on Britain's military folklore. The Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Independent all supply readers with allegiance to this tradition and they are not going to allow Labour to forget it. Were he to become the party's head, David would be inescapably identified as an apologist and accomplice of the betrayal of Britain's military integrity.

We all make mistakes, especially in politics. People must be allowed to redeem themselves; otherwise, everyone gets trapped in sectarian shallowness. If David had said that the line on WMDs deceived him, he would at least have opened up a space between himself and the perpetrators of the concoction. More important, there was a decisive moment when he could have redeemed himself on Iraq.

On 12 November 2007, Gordon Brown made his first full-scale speech as prime minister setting out his approach to international affairs. He called for "hard-headed internationalism", opposed anti-Americanism and didn't mention Iraq. But as he went out of his way to regret that the international community had not taken action over the Rwanda genocide, the omission of the invasion of Mesopotamia was a clear signal that he wanted to distance himself from it. Typically, Brown did so while failing to be decisive.

The next day Brown's attempts at "renewal" were ambushed. His new foreign secretary was asked by the BBC whether the "same decision" on Iraq would still have been made under Brown's new direction. "Absolutely," David Miliband replied, and he insisted: "No one is resiling from the original decision."

Colin Brown's report in the Independent went on to say that Labour critics of the war were "disappointed". This is an understatement. At the time, David knew just as well as he does now that Saddam had no WMDs. But he didn't mention the fact as having any bearing; his support for the invasion was 100 per cent pure Blair and he locked his successor in to it.

Two points follow. First, a question: what has led David to change his mind between 2007 and 2010? Even his apparently low-key, technical positioning, that he would not have supported the invasion had he known there were no WMDs, is inconsistent and unsustainable. He backed it unconditionally well after he knew.

Second, he has a direct responsibility for the fact that Labour has not been able to put Iraq behind it. Earlier in the summer, he gave an eloquent Keir Hardie lecture. Looking back over the immediate past he said, "I agreed completely with Gordon Brown, when he became prime minister in 2007, that we needed renewal. I supported and voted for him. I agreed that we needed greater moral seriousness and less indifference to the excesses of a celebrity-drenched culture . . . But, it didn't happen."

One of the reasons it didn't happen is that David Miliband helped to prevent it from happening. He supported the previous celebrity prime minister when Brown sought change. In 2003 he was only a junior member of the team. By 2007, as foreign secretary, he shared responsibility for Labour failing to renew itself by backing the Iraq decision 100 per cent.

Talk versus walk

Jon Cruddas, who voted for the war, like so many of David's supporters, says the Keir Hardie address was one of the factors that persuaded him to endorse David. When James Purnell resigned from the cabinet in 2009 because Brown was sure to lead Labour to defeat, Cruddas gave a speech to a Compass conference. He ridiculed the arguments of the Purnell faction, who said they agreed entirely with Brown's policy but not his leadership. They were, literally, he mocked, "rebels . . . without a cause"!

It was a brilliantly funny rebuke. But was Cruddas demanding that they embrace different policies or was he telling them not to take a stand? For while Cruddas sets out his cause, where is the rebellion? From Iraq to 42 days' internment without trial, when push comes to politics, Cruddas, like David, has the rhetoric but not the will to strike.

Below the Plimsoll line of acting honestly, there is the great bulk of public opinion. Historically, Iraq was a unique war in terms of popular support. With appeasement in 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain had most of the public behind him, even though he was wrong. When Winston Churchill was defiant and far-sighted in 1940, he had wide public and cross-party backing. When Anthony Eden launched the Suez expedition (also dishonestly), the assault on Egypt was popular, even though the strategy was disastrous. Over the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher had public opinion on her side, whatever you thought about fighting in the South Atlantic. Throughout the cold war, the British overwhelmingly backed deterrence. But with Iraq, for the first time, the government committed the country to a major conflict while millions marched against it despite the leadership of both main parties and most of the press.

Britain's informal constitution has at least two abiding rules -- unwritten, of course -- that have ensured its longevity. The first is to ensure broadly speaking popular consent for the regime and its wars. Consent can be highly manipulated and is different from democracy. Arguably, certainly from the point of view of a political elite, it is better to have consent without democracy than democracy but not consent. In the case of Iraq, Britain had neither.

That was bad enough. But the second informal understanding of the British regime is that while the public is foolishly conservative or dangerously populist and generally grasping, short-sighted but foolishly in love with conventional forms of power, the elite are wiser, more far-sighted and know what is best. It is the validity of this presumption that allows the country's rulers to retain consent over the long run.

With Iraq, this state of affairs was turned upside down. The real, unspoken reason for the Chilcot inquiry is to work out what do to re-establish the credibility of a military, administrative and intelligence establishment that got it completely wrong.

How wrong, and it is good to be reminded, was summed up before the war by an obscure Democratic politician in Chicago who, despite his ambition, broke ranks with his party and, in effect, spoke for millions in his own and our country when he said about Saddam Hussein:

He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbours, that the Iraqi economy is in a shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

David Miliband went along with the Blair view that the millions who thought this didn't "get it" when we took to the streets on 15 February to protest against the coming invasion. In fact, the millions were wise and he was dumb.

General crisis

What David needs to explain, therefore, is not just why he was wrong, but why we the public got it right. The issue is not only about him and his judgement, but his explanation, as the would-be leader of a democratic Britain, of why, when the public was right, we were ignored. The public being not just Labour supporters but also the hated Lib Dems, patriotic Conservatives, Greens, Scottish Nationalists, Robin Cook, Diane Abbott and, indeed, Uncle Tom Cobly as well as President Chirac, Chancellor Schröder, Joschka Fischer, Barack Obama (they were his words in Chicago) and all. How come we knew what was going on when he didn't? It is the answer to this question that tells us what kind of power (and there are different kinds) he feels he has to represent.

David is now saying that Labour has to be a "movement" and he is funding a thousand citizen campaigners to help achieve this. But Labour was rarely, if ever, more of a movement than in February 2003. Even a majority of Labour MPs not on the government payroll voted against the war, which was only endorsed by the House of Commons thanks to the Tories. Yes, indeed, a party of the left needs also to be a movement. But a movement has to embody judgements; it has to stand for something. When Labour was last a movement David opposed it. Why does he think that the movement called it right -- and six years later what remained of it then got 42 days right, while he didn't? Perhaps Jon Cruddas can explain.

The question goes to the heart of current British politics. For perhaps the first time since the franchise was cleaned up in 1832, the voting public feels that the political elite do not represent the country. The public has always been justifiably cynical in thinking its leaders support the class system, but at least it was our class system! In the case of Iraq, the elite acted in the interests of Washington and George Bush. They told us that we had to back globalisation for our own good. When the crash came, it turned out that they were representing the bankers, not the British. Then the expenses crisis broke, and the catastrophic decline in trust that followed was less about what some MPs took for themselves than what MPs as a whole permitted.

At first, the freshness and surprise of the coalition made it seem that it would be able to distance itself from this general political crisis. It may find it increasingly hard to sustain this, and it is certainly the case that unlike "sleaze" and John Major's government, the corruption of the Noughties is cross-party.

But it does not follow that Labour is not specifically identified with the abuses of power that marked this century's opening decade. It expanded the powers of the state far too much, threatened our liberties and deployed its powers on behalf of vested interests, especially international financial ones. The public knew this, has not forgotten and anyway will be reminded of it. In these circumstances, to dismiss the Iraq decision as "the past", as David Miliband does, when it opened the gates, and to belittle the issue of trust that it symbolises, is a strategic failure of political judgement. In whose name does he want Labour to rule the UK? Because of its reckless statism, from ID cards through subsidising bankers to the Budget deficit, and above all its military adventurism on behalf of the United States, this will be a major front in the coming battle for Labour to re-establish its claim to govern.

Milisisters

The new generation bidding to lead Labour are not interested in having the kind of bunfights that permit the press to destroy them. Inheritors of 13 years in office, they know what it takes to win; the disciplines of ruling come naturally to them (including Diane Abbott). Today, the question is what to do with power once in office and how to build support for any reforms they carry out. Something that Mandelson, Campbell, Brown, Blair et al, for all their skill at "persuasion", were incapable of achieving. Boring as the leadership contest may be to outsiders, this is the underlying seriousness of it.

Delivery, it seems, will not come from internal ideological correctness. Perhaps this is why partnerships seem to go down well in British public life. What are David Cameron and Nick Clegg but a replacement for Blair and Brown? Voters find ideological disputes between party factions weird. They make them feel excluded, and the media hammers "splits". But who isn't familiar with strong personal differences between individuals tied together in a relationship?

In an era when the spectacle demands personalisation yet dislikes the cult of the individual, partnerships, with their human tensions and difficulties, may be inherently attractive. The Blair-Brown diarchy in Downing Street has been replaced by another, and in a similar way the coupledom of the Milibands is an attraction. They are the Williams sisters of Labour Party politics, outsiders delivering a new style and professionalism to the game. Is David the Venus who may win first and Ed the Serena who shows greater determination when pushed to prove himself?

If they can continue to play together while playing each other, Labour could have a winning team. But it is as certain as things ever are in politics that, however much David is an asset in the larger game, he will be an election-loser if he is appointed captain.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy and co-edits its British blog, OurKingdom.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.