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