Support 100 years of independent journalism.

23 February 2010

David Miliband blasts Cameron’s Tories

Foreign Secretary's speech reclaims "progressive" politics for the liberal left.

By James Macintyre

Anyone who says that the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, cannot, should not or does not make powerful interventions on domestic politics; anyone who believes that Miliband is merely a factional “Blairite” and not a Labour man through and through; anyone who thinks Miliband has — along with some others in Labour — given up on the fight against the Tories, would do well to read his speech to Demos today.

The full text is here. It contains a comprehensive articulation of progressive, liberal and social democratic values, rich in historical context but placed in the contemporary climate.

The wide-ranging speech should be read in its entirety. It is worth noting that — unlike the cabinet’s conservative wing, including, to some extent, the Prime Minister — Miliband appears to be reaching out to the Liberal Democrats, reissuing his call for a “reset referendum” on constitutional and electoral reform and drawing on the liberal tradition within the Labour movement. Also worth a footnote is the clear, accessible style Miliband has adopted.

But for reasons of space, let us focus on Miliband’s attacks on David Cameron’s Tories, which — he says — have turned New Labour’s formula on its head: new values by the old means instead of old values done differently. By pointing out that Cameron and his shadow chancellor, George Osborne, “boast” that they need no “Clause Four moment”, Miliband shows he has a better understanding than most in Labour of the fraudulence of Tory changes.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

This is the most stinging attack on Cameron’s Tories from any so-called “Blairite” to date. Miliband showed at the last annual Labour conference that he knows how to get under the Tories’ skin, saying of Cameron’s European isolationism and new EU alliance, “It makes me sick”, to the delight of the Labour faithful.

While many in Labour either feel defeated by Cameron, or are willing to concede (wrongly) that he has changed his party as Neil Kinnock and Blair did theirs, Miliband, at least has his sights on the Tories.

From today’s speech:

David Cameron and George Osborne have both made speeches in which they tried to claim the idea of being a progressive force for the political right. But it is not a claim that withstands serious scrutiny.

. . . [One] reason the Conservative leadership are currently tied in policy knots — backing away from health reform, back-to-front on government’s role in sponsoring marriage, facing both ways on economic policy — is that they have felt it necessary to assert that they, too, seek progressive ends, contrary to the history of Conservatism. It is quite a bizarre situation.

New Labour was built on the application of our traditional values in new ways. The Tories are saying that they have got new values — in with social justice, out with “no such thing as society” — that will be applied in old ways, notably an assault on the legitimacy and purpose of government itself.

New Labour said the values never change but that the means need to be updated. The Tories want it the other way round. They say the values have changed, but miraculously the policies should stay the same. They even boast about not needing a “Clause Four moment”.

This is actually not just a dry technocratic debate. It is about how much hope we invest in the future. Progressives are optimists about change. Conservatives are fearful that change invariably means loss. We think things can work better. Conservatives worry that they never will. We trust, as Bill Clinton used to put it, that the future will be better than the past, and we all have a personal responsibility to make it so. The Conservatives think, as they always have, that Britain is broken.

. . . [The] Tories, after promising to “let sunshine win the day” in 2006, have decided not only that it is raining, but that it will never stop. That is why they have embraced a rhetoric of national decline, and are now promising an Age of Austerity. They think they’ve spotted that people are miserable and if they can only make them more miserable still, they can benefit.

. . . David Cameron’s Hugo Young Lecture last year was intended as a corrective to his disastrous foray into policy substance at his party conference where he said that the state was always the problem and never the solution. As he sought to allay fears that he had used the economic crisis to show his true colours as a small-state Reaganite, he still showed what he really thinks.

The kernel of his analysis of Britain today was this: “There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property.” It was declinist. It blamed government for all ills. And every single assertion that can be measured in his list was wrong. Divorce rates are falling. School achievement is rising. Volunteering is up. Crime is down.

The Tory dystopia of modern Britain relies on a picture of what is actually happening in Britain that has as much basis in reality as Avatar does. They need to believe that 54 per cent of children born in poor areas are teenage pregnancies for their politics to add up.

But though the instincts are clear they are split down the middle. Not right versus left. There isn’t a Tory left any more. But head versus heart. Radicalism versus reassurance. The heart says cut government, attack Europe. The head says: watch out, don’t say that, the voters might hear.

The Tories say big government is the problem, but promise a moratorium on change in the health service, the biggest employer in the world. They say Britain is heading the way of Greece, yet will not say how their deficit reduction plan differs from ours. They say we are a broken society . . . and will heal it through a social action line on Facebook. They say we have sold our birthright to Europe, but don’t want a bust-up over it. Everyone knows we need to reform social care so people can grow old without fear, and all the Tories can do is put up scare posters.

I recognise the Tory difficulty. We faced it after 1994. You need to reassure people you are not a risk; and you need to offer change. But while we promised evolution not revolution in the short term, like sticking to Tory spending limits, we offered a platform for radical change in the medium to long term, from the minimum wage to school investment.

Cameron’s got himself facing the other way round. The heart insisted on radical change in the short term — cuts in inheritance tax for the richest estates, a marriage tax allowance, immediate cuts in public spending, bring back fox-hunting. But after that, the head gives the impression that it really doesn’t know what to do, other than press pause on reform, offer a £1m internet prize for the best policy ideas, and then go off and play with the Wii.

They have managed the unique feat of being so determined to advertise pragmatism that they have completely obliterated any medium-term vision to their politics, while cleaving to short-term commitments that leave the impression they are ideological zealots. It’s the precise opposite of the New Labour approach in the 1990s.

The result is that today’s Conservatism looks more and more like a toxic cocktail of Tory traditions. The government on offer from David Cameron would be as meritocratic as Macmillan, as compassionate as Thatcher, and as decisive as Major.

The Foreign Secretary is said to be planning to fight an intense election campaign against the Tories — as he should. if this is a taste of what is to come, David Miliband — whom Tony Blair once called the “Wayne Rooney of the cabinet” — could yet turn out to be Labour’s secret weapon.