John Smith Memorial Lecture Speech

"Turning the Tide on Democratic Pessimism": The speech David Miliband delivered at Monday's memorial

It is a great honour to give the John Smith Memorial Lecture today. John was a remarkable inspiration to many people beyond as well as within the Labour Party. He symbolized an ethic of public service. Through the great arguments of the 1970s and 1980s John was principled and consistent. He was also kind and indulgent as I had the chance to find out when he encouraged me to challenge his thinking as Secretary of the Social Justice Commission at the beginning of the 1990s.

Gordon Brown knew him well and has written, surely correctly, that “it was when John talked of social justice, fairness, greater equality, that his words burned with passion”. It is appropriate therefore that John Smith’s belief in the power of people to shape their own lives is taken forward in the remarkable work of the Memorial Trust that bears his name, helping young leaders from the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union develop their own vision of social justice and good government

I want to take as my starting point for this lecture a speech that John gave in 1987 – the John Macintosh memorial lecture. In it he confided that he approved of memorial lectures, on the same grounds as John Macintosh, that “whatever it did to the audience it might do some good to the performer”. Very John.

In that lecture he talked about his abiding commitment to what he called democratic optimism: “our capacity as a nation to set our own objectives for the society in which we live, and to set about achieving them in a spirit of resolute determination.”

My starting point today is the threat of what, pace John, we should call democratic pessimism. It is a series of assertions: you are all the same, you are all in it for yourselves, and most British and most damaging “nothing ever changes”.

Democratic pessimism is born of a number of factors. Trust in institutions, in both the public and the private sectors, has declined in the last two generations. Ironically, one of the things for which the Left has always striven has been an end to deference, an increase in the sense of power enjoyed by people. People want a say not just an answer.

But there are obviously other elements. The end of the great ideological utopias of the 20th century. National politics struggling with international problems. Government structures and systems ill-tuned to modern problems. And of course in Britain the expenses scandal – which has undoubtedly uncovered abuse but which has also left the whole of politics not just individual politicians in disrepute.

Today I want to shine a torchlight on democratic pessimism. I want to show that Government is actually a bigger change-maker in the long term than it realizes, even if it engineers smaller changes in the short term than it claims.

I want to argue second that it is possible to see the contours of a progressive project for the next decade. In fact, the great waves of change that we have seen in the last twenty years – the wave of democratic accountability, the wave of information transfer, the wave of new markets – demand a progressive response to the twin challenges of extending individual empowerment and enhancing collective security.

Third, I want to argue that the biggest danger is that we learn the wrong lessons of the last ten years of New Labour. Ideological lessons and organizational lessons.


New Labour promised a “change not a revolution” in its 1997 manifesto. The charge against us today is that people wanted a revolution – or at least disruptive changes of course – and that we have failed to deliver it.

We have to honest that in some areas, change has been incremental and continuity has been strong:

I am thinking of transport, where despite record passenger numbers on the rails, the foundations of policy within modes, and the relationship between them, has not been fundamentally changed.

Or environmental policy, where the creation of a Department of Energy and Climate Change is welcome but should have happened in 1997. We are meeting our Kyoto targets, have pioneered a binding emissions reduction law, and are leading an international debate about a global climate change deal. But our low carbon revolution is still to come.

Or local government in England, where funding has been raised and some powers devolved, including the creation of a general power of economic and social well being which the Tories now say is their panacea, but the shift in the balance of power from Whitehall to Town Hall has not yet happened, and the convening power of local government over the whole range of local services not been achieved.

But in other areas change has been disruptive, marked and successful. We don’t do a good job at explaining it but that does not mean it has not happened. And interestingly enough where our change has been most profound it is most irreversible.

Tony Blair promised education, education, education. But actually the record shows a priority of health, health and health. Twelve years ago the debate in health was about whether the National Health Service was a British anachronism doomed to death. Today there has been a real revolution. It is not just the extra doctors, nurses and buildings. It is the rehabilitation of the cause of a tax financed free at the point of use health service.

The barren land of under fives education has been turned into fertile not to say overwhelming terrain of diverse providers and universal provision. Meanwhile the scale of educational investment in schools, and the radicalism of new recruitment and promotion strategies for teachers and assistants, has made teaching a career of choice in a way inconceivable twelve years ago.

We have the the toughest legislation in the world against discrimination on grounds of race, sexuality, disability or gender, part and parcel of a fundamental change in social mores.

The constitutional settlement for Scotland and Wales that has saved the Union. We may hate the sight of an SNP government in Holyrood, but let’s savour the irony that they opposed the fundamental concept and are now trapped by our argument that devolution gives the best of both worlds, and separation the worst.

The independence of the Bank of England, something which John Smith actually opposed, has engineered a fundamental shift in inflationary expectations, with significant consequences for our path of growth, which though severely negative this year, shows fluctuations below that of France and Germany for the first time in a generation.

The commitment to a secure floor in the labour market, for individuals and for trade unions, as a core part of the compact that holds an economy and society together. When the Tories pretend they really support a minimum wage after all those years of opposing it then we should recognize progress.

And think also of international development, and the transformation of Britain from the aid scrooge of the Thatcher/Major years to a byword for generosity of spirit and entrepreneurialism of effort that other countries seek to emulate.

That is, I think, a straight portrait. Inequality is still higher than it should be. The housing supply is not yet adequate. The reforms of the political system are not yet complete. But a great deal has been achieved, a great deal of which this government can rightly be proud, a great deal of which will be hard to reverse.

What do we learn from that? First, that democratic pessimism is in fact undemocratic amnesia. Undemocratic because it corrodes the very basis of politics. Amnesia because it relegates anything that happened before the last Sunday newspaper to ancient history. Government has no monopoly on change but does make a difference.

Also that the interesting question in British politics today is not ‘can Labour win the next election’ – to which the answer is yes - but ‘why should it win’ and ‘why does Britain need it to win’.

Thinking Forward

My answer is that we are the people with the best chance of addressing the pressing needs for greater individual empowerment and greater collective security. We understand that a successful society is created by people with the power and freedom to pursue their goals; and we know that an individual stands on the shoulders of society. The genius of modern societies is the way they release individual creativity; the danger is growing shared risks. Our USP needs to be the ability to address both sides of the coin.

Let’s work back from the future.

In a decade or so, the UK will consist of most of the same people, living in the same houses, and with broadly the same values. Even those things that do change are already likely to be present now – as someone once said, the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.

But there are big changes that we have a duty to lead. Huge individual empowerment – power dispersed, hierarchies flattened, great institutions suddenly accountable, old taboos broken. Meanwhile enormous collective risks – from an interconnected global financial sector to drugs to climate change to international terrorism - that require us to work and act together.

The facile Conservative assertion that the “post bureaucratic” new technology of production, distribution and exchange has rendered progressive politics outdated is not convincing. I cannot imagine John Smith on Facebook; or his reaction to political advisers suggesting that he set himself up on it. But I can imagine him saying to devastating effect: “If there is no such thing as society, why is there such a thing as Facebook?”

Thatcherism ultimately undid the Tories for a generation because it liberated economic dynamism without finding a way to build social trust or protection as a buffer against those very same forces. The result was a political not to say moral contradiction which the Tories have not yet resolved. Our challenge is to sustain and spread forces of individual empowerment more equally while enhancing rather than reducing capacity for collective action to tackle shared risks.

This is an important theme of the Government White Paper Building Britain’s Future, published last week. It spoke to immediate needs for political and economic crisis-therapy – from Parliamentary reform to housing policy. It also showed in important areas – from climate change to crime – how to engage the public in fighting for social progress.

As we look forward to the manifesto, we know the scale of our electoral challenge means we need to be more creative, more innovative, more forward looking than ever before. We need to show that we not the Tories understand how to empower people and protect them at the same time. And in each case show that we can forge the alliance of government leadership, market dynamism and civic mobilization that is necessary to solve any big problem.

Empowerment is a theme I have been talking about for five years. I think it is the heart of the political battlefield. The 1940s were defined as an era of ‘I need’ – in respect of housing, health, employment. The 1980s were the decade of ‘I want’. The modern era is defined by a theme of ‘I can’. Something as simple as women expecting to make choices about the shape of their own lives is a historic emblem of this.

I think this is a transformational agenda for Labour. It builds on what we have done, but cannot be delivered by relying on what we have done. Empowerment demands capability, control, and connection for citizens. Our successes so far have been about raising the standard of what is considered good enough. Now we need to go further.

Start with capability. There is a sterile debate in education about whether it is for passing on knowledge or building up skills. Filling a pail or lighting a fire, as Yeats put it. Our challenge is to go beyond that and develop in young people the five cognitive abilities that American philosopher Howard Gardner argues will be the difference between success and failure for individuals in the future: the disciplinary mind of major schools of thought, the synthesizing mind that can bring together information from different disciplines, the creating mind that thinks afresh, the respectful mind that offers just that, and the ethical mind that thinks how we can serve more than self interest.

In my constituency on Friday I visited four schools, two primary and two secondary, with the Chief Inspector of Schools which felt to me like they were at the cutting edge of this agenda. We need to universalize it. Chains of schools, personalized tuition, a curriculum fit for purpose, diverse specialist provision, strong links across civic society, the highest standards of professionalism, are the constituent elements. We need to bring them together.

Then control. Think about health, the greatest source of insecurity in the developed world. One trend is talked about: the pressure for extra spending. But another trend is more important: four-fifths of NHS spending is spent on chronic conditions, while the focus of health care has historically been to provide higher quality and quicker service for one-off treatments of injuries and illnesses rather than the continuous management of chronic disease. So the political task is clear: to be the party that is first to offer power and choice to patients in the management of their disease through the integration of primary, secondary and tertiary care around individual diseases. And the economic benefit is also evident: effective self-management is the biggest driver of efficiency in any health system.

Finally the connecting networks that allow you to put capability and control into practice. There is a personal aspect but also a social or professional aspect. Think about employment. Many people believe the welfare state will not protect them from the risks of globalization. The way we answer that fear is by offering people genuine connection to the labour market. In the recession it means guaranteeing every young person a job or training place. When the economy recovers, guarantees can be extended, to a job after time unemployed, to personal help to navigate a lifecycle of vastly more opportunity, but less structure and more risk.

You can apply the template of capability, control and connection to most of the big issues that individuals and communities face – from an ageing population to youth dropouts. And in each case empowerment needs more than the absence of government.

So does protecting people from new risks.

The biggest long term risk we face is climate change. It requires us to think in wholly new ways about the economy, culture, security, the interaction of government, markets and citizens. The next manifesto will have to be the greenest ever.

For example the future is about conserving and creating energy house by house, business by business. The only possible way to develop zero carbon housing – necessary for climate change reasons and desirable on energy security grounds – is for new and existing developments to generate energy on site and export to the grid. The same applies to cars: as Amory Lovins says, once you put a fuel cell in an ultra light car, you have a 20-25 kilowatt power station on wheels. And where we cannot create energy we need to store carbon. North Sea oil is running down. But the storage of carbon in those same oil wells under systems of Carbon Capture and Storage is only just beginning. We should be looking to bring forward the day when the revenues from using the North Sea as a carbon sink have overtaken revenues from North Sea oil.

The biggest short term risk we face is obviously financial. I cannot do it justice tonight. But I want to bring out one point. One lesson of the crisis is that you need to regulate the system not just regulate the individual institutions within it. But the other lesson is that the European Union needs to provide a safe regulatory harbour whether or not a country is in EMU. So for the Tories to attack the deal the Prime Minister negotiated on financial regulation at the recent European Council – they attacked the level of European involvement in financial regulation - is not just to suggest that they have learnt nothing from the crisis. It is also to suggest that the party has gone from Euro skepticism to Euro extremism, because whatever the failings of the EU, to be anti EU in the global age is not to stand up for democracy but to condemn it to weakness.

So the next manifesto will need to be clearer than ever about Britain’s European future. The Tories think they have a tactical advantage; in fact they have a massive strategic weakness in a mindset that would cut Britain off from help, and a set of policies that offer isolation and impotence.

Reinventing the party

So let us not accept the democratic pessimism that says we have run out of aspirations or ideas. The question is how to put them into practice. We need to reflect on two aspects of ourselves, the first ideological, the second organizational. Because the truth is that if we learn the wrong lessons from the last ten years we will not succeed.

I want to make one point about ideology. New Labour has embraced the pro Europeanism and multilateralism traditionally associated with Labour’s right, while it embraced the individual rights and minimum wage proposed by the left. It was and is a coalition within the party. It is strongest when it combines the tradition that goes under a radical liberal banner, sometimes with a small l and sometimes a large one, with its focus on individual liberty and pluralism, and the social democratic tradition of Crosland and others like John Smith, with its focus on societal equality driven through action by the state. Our most innovative policies have fused these traditions: for example the New Deal for the unemployed, or devolved budgets for disabled people, or the digital switch-over, or the Child Trust Fund, or Academy schools, or free access to museums, or Sure Start provision.
To contrast these traditions as liberty versus equality, is a ‘category mistake’. As Amartya Sen says: ‘Liberty is among the possible fields of application of equality, and equality is among the possible patterns of distribution of liberty. The radical liberal tradition can teach social democrats the importance of individual lives and stories in the overall pattern of the good society.   It speaks to empowerment. The social democrat can teach the radical liberal that, without social justice, there is no freedom.  It speaks to collective insecurity.  As we address the needs of Britain over the next ten years, we will need to draw on the radical liberal as well as the social democratic tradition.

But if the Labour Party is to lead this change, it needs to be a different kind of party.  Not different in its decency and diligence, but different in its structures and role.  Because the traditional political structures of mainstream political parties are dying. Shrinking membership, declining affinity, fuzzy identity lead many to proclaim that death has already happened, with few tears at the funeral.

Yet without parties then where is democratic debate? How do we distil the near infinite range of problems to be solved or solutions in need of backing into competing programmes for government?

John Smith understood this. His defiant stand for One Member One Vote was born of a simple instinct that the alternative - one person, many votes – just could not be justified. But it was also born of a love of the Labour Party and its potential to be a force for good.

Tony Blair and John Prescott, then Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman, have taken forward modernization of the party. In individual constituencies there is brilliant work. But 15 years on from John’s untimely death, the need for organizational renewal does not go away. It is real and pressing. Real because people have moved on and politics has moved on. Pressing because the finger of the electorate is on the fast forward button.

Many people look at the Obama campaign and see in that the future. Its network of supporters, two million strong and active in government, is a genuine inspiration. The 3600 trained in community organizing as Obama Organising Fellows is remarkable. Its ethos of shared effort, no contribution too small, is symbolic of his Presidency.

But I am struck by an example from a Parliamentary system closer to home. Only one European socialist party really did well in the European elections – in Greece – is also the party that has been most radical in its institutional reforms. The changes have been profound:

opening up the party so that now over 900 000 Greeks, out of a population of 11 million, have equal rights as members or ‘friends’

tackling a macho culture with quotas for male and female representation

taking forward innovation with the use of deliberative democracy to select the PASOK candidate for an Athens municipality, and open primaries to select party candidates for local elections

promoting high standards through a Members’ Ombudsman to guard ethical standards

committing to education through an Institute for Adult Education for all officers, members and friends

improving society through Every Day a Citizen, an organization dedicated to citizen engagement

and a pre Congress dialogue with debate on the political programme in 1600 teams and committees

We need to be exploring all these ideas. They are about finding energy in communities, and multiplying the force of a national message through local, authentic, committed advocacy. But we need to look further still:
- the US model of registered Democrats and Republicans, where people align themselves on the electoral roll and get rights to vote in primaries
- the model of mobilising our over 3 million affiliated trade unionists as members of the party by virtue of their signing up to the political fund of their union; it is a great strength of our democracy that trade unions choose to have a political fund, and that over three million trade unionists choose to pay it; it is a direct link to real life; but we don’t make the most of it, either to listen or to lead; I am as guilty as anyone, as I realize that while I have some contact with the levy payers in my constituency, they don’t get invited to my regular all members meetings or other engagement of a thoroughgoing kind
- a new model of committing to donate a percentage of the party's fundraising to charity, as the first step in a genuine policy of corporate social responsibility; we would need to work hard to avoid conflicts of interest and get the details right, but it would put into practice our nostrum that there is something bigger than ourselves.
All these points reflect a simple insight: that progressive parties must reflect the problems of the future, the power structures of the future, and the people of the future.


Progress in politics has a paradox attached. The great changes for the better that have been made in the fabric of British social life and in the public realm since the reforms of the late Victorian period, through the first wave of the welfare state in the early 20th century and the great reforming Attlee government to the changes since 1997 have had a strangely deadening effect on politics.

The ideological heat seems to have gone out of the battle. The Left gave up its desire to plan the economy in microscopic detail. It accepted the process, if not always the outcomes, of the market economy. The Right has been forced to accept that markets do often deliver unfair verdicts and that citizenship is an equal right of all people, regardless of who they are.

John Smith understood this. We have to bring his qualities to the fight for the country’s future over the next period.

What are they? Above all a belief in the ability of democratic politics to enlarge opportunity, hope, and confidence and improve the quality of everybody's lives. Not just through state action, but through shared action, at every level of family and community life.

That is an exciting and important project. As we face the massive challenge of seeking a fourth election victory, we miss John Smith. We miss his decency, his calmness, his eye for the devastating attack. But we go forward stronger for his example. Let us learn from it, and never forget it.