What David Miliband did (and didn’t) say

David Miliband’s Keir Hardie Lecture this week may prove to be a key document in understanding MiliD’s political philosophy and leadership priorities. It’s worth reading: I wouldn’t say it blew me away, but it was good, solid stuff.

A couple of aspects of the lecture have caused controversy (especially, it has to be said, among opponents of Miliband who have only read news reports of the lecture rather than the lecture itself): first, Miliband’s alleged “back-stabbing” attack on Gordon Brown; second, his supposed endorsement of the Tories’ “Big Society” concept.

First, the “attack” on Brown. Miliband’s comments are worth quoting at length:

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.  I agreed with him when he said that we needed greater coherence as a government, particularly in relation to child poverty and equality.  I agreed with him on the importance of party reform and a meaningful internationalism that would be part of a unified government strategy.  I agreed that we needed a civic morality to champion civility when confronting a widespread indifference to others.

But, it didn’t happen.

It was not just more of the same.  Far from correcting them failings – tactics, spin, high-handedness – intensified; and we lost many of our strengths – optimism born of clear strategy, bold plans for change and reform, a compelling articulation of aspiration and hope.  We did not succeed in renewing ourselves in office; and the roots of that failure were deep not recent, about procedure and openness, or lack of it, as much as policy.  That is a political fact and now words are cheap but the stakes are high.

In general terms, some criticism of the last years of the Labour government has to be in order. If we can’t say that Labour got things wrong while in office, then the implication is that it was the electorate who got it wrong in throwing us out. I suspect that, in their heart of  hearts, many Labour people feel that way to some extent. The key to renewal is how quickly we can shake off such self-pity and engage honestly with our mistake.

As for the specifics of Miliband’s criticisms, to be blunt I have to agree with him on them. He accurately summarises what we were hoping for when Gordon Brown became prime minister – seriousness, coherence, reform, a new “civic morality” – and equally accurately summarises how those hopes were disappointed, notwithstanding the positive achievements of Brown’s premiership (especially in response to the banking crisis).

Some have said that Miliband should have said this while in office, should have taken Brown on and challenged him in order to foster debate and renewal. I think that would be been catastrophic: a party openly at war with itself while in government would have done far worse than we managed in May. On the contrary, the main hesitation I’ve had about supporting Miliband has been the perception that he did too much to stir up rumours about leadership challenges.

As for the second point, about David Miliband’s supposed endorsement for the “Big Society”, this can be refuted just by quoting what he actually said:

I take the Big Society seriously.  But it is a piece of doublethink – a small society maintained by voluntarism and charity alone. I want a bigger society, based on reciprocity not just kindness or charity, and I intend to make that a Labour issue.

In other words, the Tories’ “Big Society” is a crock, mere rhetoric to mask a cuts agenda. But Labour had become too associated with statism, and if the Big Society has any political resonance at all then it’s out of people’s concerns over an approach to the state that “turns citizens into consumers and makes government a giant problem solver, which only increases our technical managerialism”.

David Miliband’s proposed alternative is to emphasise “community ethics” with “a creed that could combine solidarity with responsibility, freedom and equality”. Quite what that means in terms of practical policy remains to be seen, but it’s an approach for which I have an instinctive sympathy (not least as a member of the Co-operative Party).

That said: you’ll notice that what has animated me from Miliband’s lecture is responding against misunderstandings or misrepresentations of its content, rather than the positive content itself. Perhaps that just means I didn’t read it carefully enough, but I think it also shows that David Miliband still has some way to go in articulating both a political philosophy and concrete policies that can really inspire and capture the imagination.

And I wish he’d stop going on about that sodding swimming pool. 😉

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2 thoughts on “What David Miliband did (and didn’t) say”

  1. And I wish he’d stop going on about that sodding swimming pool.

    A fiver says it’s the only story he has from a ‘normal’ person. Another fiver says it’s not a ‘friend’ so much as ‘a chap who berated one of my staff on the campaign trail once’.

    When Milibland major talks about reciprocity, how would you say that differs, in substance, from a market economy? It seems to me that if reciprocity is to mean anything concrete, then it is basically a rather long-winded and leftie way of saying ‘mutually-agreeable exchange’, which is itself a long-winded and rightie way of saying ‘trade’.

    1. Phil: suspect you’ve nailed it with the swimming pool anecdote.

      I think what MiliD is getting at when he talks about reciprocity is in the “national insurance” sense: everyone contributes, everyone benefits. That’s very different from a system in which every human interaction is based on market exchanges.

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