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8 March 2011

David Miliband to the left: we must be reformers

Miliband’s return continues with his take on the crisis of European social democracy.

By George Eaton

David Miliband’s political comeback continues. After interventions on the NHS and on multiculturalism, as well as a weekend appearance on The Andrew Marr Show, the former foreign secretary turns his attention to the crisis of European social democracy in an article for the Times (£), a preview of a speech he will deliver at the LSE tonight.

He is right do so. As I’ve noted before, parties of the centre left now hold power in just six of the European Union’s 27 member states. Despite the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the left has struggled to gain ground in Germany, France and Italy. Even Sweden, home to the world’s most successful social-democratic party, recently re-elected the country’s centre-right coalition. By contrast, in 1999, at the height of “the Third Way”, 13 of the 15 governments in the EU were of the left.

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As Miliband neatly puts it: “The left was winning in the Nice (non-inflationary continuous expansion) decade of the 1990s. Now we are in the Grim (growth reduced with inflationary misery) decade and the left is losing in the harsher climate.”

His message to the European left (including his brother, Ed) is a strikingly reformist one. He argues that social democrats must fight elections as “public-sector innovators as well as private-sector reformers” and that the left must “make government an ally in wealth creation”. The logic of Miliband’s argument, some would say, is for Labour to support welfare reform, free schools and GP commissioning. Indeed, his close friend and political all James Purnell, argued as much in a recent Prospect column. Whether Miliband has the intellectual confidence to respond to this position in his speech remains to be seen.

If he wants to offer what Peter Kellner has described as a new “business model” for social democracy, there are a number of other lacunae he must fill. Can we still afford a universal welfare state? What is the desirable level of taxation? Does the left need to rethink its definition of equality?

The coalition’s permanent revolution means that answers to these questions cannot be delayed indefinitely. If Miliband’s intervention encourages Labour to emerge from years of intellectual inertia, it will have been worthwhile.