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Maintaining our radicalism in a second term

David Miliband

 

First published in Renewal volume 10, number 2 (2002)

 

To defend what New Labour has done requires absolute clarity about what remains to be done.

 

It is an irony of modern politics that the Labour Party, for the twentieth century one of the least successful social democratic parties in Western Europe, should at the beginning of the twenty-first century suddenly look like one of the most successful. As social democratic governments have fallen in Italy and Denmark, and face tough re-election fights in France and Germany, Labour seems to be defying the laws of political gravity.

However, things are never as good (or as bad) as they seem. In a myriad of ways Britain remains a country less productive and less fair than it should be. Our task is to tackle those problems. Tony Blair’s speech to the London School of Economics in March in which he set out his aspirations for a third, more confident ‘phase’ of New Labour, should be seen as opening up debate, not closing it down. The job of the labour movement is not to give the speech marks out of ten, but to rise to its challenge – to contribute to the intellectual and political renewal of progressive politics.

As we enter our fifth year in office it is the time to understand the dynamics of New Labour’s current political dominance; locate its strengths, weaknesses and challenges ahead; and debate what might be some of the next steps for the party. Incumbency no less than insurgency demands fresh thinking.

 

New Labour’s task

After 1992, people asked whether changing class formation, the gender gap and the electoral system would deliver permanent Conservative hegemony. Yet ten years on, people are saying the same things about Labour dominance, and asking whether the Conservatives are in terminal decline. Certainly the electoral record is remarkable: the two biggest consecutive electoral landslides this century have eclipsed the performance of Thatcher, Attlee and Baldwin. Perhaps the only, tenuous, parallel is with Conservative dominance after the age of Gladstone. How did this come about?

The argument put by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and others after John Smith died in 1994 – not least Renewal and its contributors – was in essence quite simple. They believed that economic and social change meant that Labour could not be elected and Britain’s problems could not be tackled by the tried and trusted methods of post-war social democracy – the happy synthesis that was the Keynesian welfare state. A new strategy was required – built on European, Australian and American as well as British experience. Five strategic ambitions can be seen as central to the march to power. Each had a political dimension, but each also addressed a substantive issue in the Britain of the 1990s:

  • Labour needed to stand for steadfast social democratic values that offered a real alternative to Thatcherism, but to offer innovative means to achieve their delivery. This meant, above all, reconsideration of the role of the state in modern social democratic politics.
  • Labour needed to reach back into the history of progressive thought in Britain to develop a ‘liberal socialism’ – social democratic commitment to social justice through collective action enriched by commitment to individual freedom in the market economy.
  • Labour needed to combine ideas for wealth creation, the ‘politics of production’, with commitment to fair outcomes, the ‘politics of distribution’.
  • Labour needed to invade territory claimed by the right – for example on law and order and defence – and redefine it for progressive ends.
  • Labour needed to engage with dynamic and emerging currents in British thought and society, from communitarianism to the reform of the state to environmentalism.

Beneath the contingencies of fortune and circumstance that have helped achieve its record results, Labour has succeeded over the last five years where it has knitted together these ambitions into a coherent narrative. Where it has struggled, it is because it has failed to resolve one or more of these conundrums. At each stage the Opposition, as it then was, and now the Government, has tried to redefine the policy choices facing Britain as well as the political choices facing the voters.

 

The record: achievements and challenges ahead

This is not the place for a comprehensive resumé of the policy-driven changes in British life since 1997. Suffice it to note that most fair-minded observers would conclude that after five years, the balance sheet explains in significant part why the electorate decided last year that the Government should be allowed to carry on with its work. In South Shields, to take an example important to me, registered unemployment is down by a third, youth unemployment by over 60 per cent; 17,000 pensioners are better off by up to £20 per week and 2,500 families with children have significantly higher living standards; low interest rates have boosted mortgage-payers and businesses alike; primary school standards are above the national average, waiting lists and times are down, and 60 new police are being hired as Community Beat Managers across South Tyneside.

Now is the time, however, either to affirm or challenge the gradualist strategy adopted since 1994, designed to rebuild confidence in progressive values and activist government. There has always been a debate inside the Labour Party, and on the left in Britain, about whether the relative caution of Labour’s 1997 promises represented the first stages of a long-term commitment to build trust in progressive goals and means, with a wider horizon of more radical change to follow, or whether in fact the party’s very purposes had been violated.

The Government has always argued that on the sound foundations of economic competence, mild redistribution and constitutional reform, further reform could be built. Since the election the Government has been ready to push for a new consensus on tax and spending, on aspects of social policy, even on Europe. This is significant because the hardest test for any political party is not whether it solves policy problems, but whether it succeeds in shifting the political centre of gravity in its direction. Put another way, success in the tug-of-war that is politics comes from dragging your opponents onto your territory. In this sense the centre-ground is not given; it is contested and constructed by politics itself; and only by redefining the centre ground can a progressive party build the cultural change necessary for a sustained and successful period in power.

By this test, there are some grounds for optimism. Most notably, the debate on tax and spending that undermined the last Labour government in the 1970s has been reconstructed. On the basis of proven economic competence and evidence of reform in service delivery, there is scope to make the case that in the end what you get is what you pay for. In 1997 and 2001 the Government promised to raise the share of national income dedicated to education. Now the Government has started a national debate about the advisability of further raising taxes to raise health spending, in the context of what is already the fastest-rising investment in education and health in Europe.

Other aspects of Labour’s agenda – on constitutional reform for example – are becoming an accepted part of the political landscape. The Tories even feel the need to say that they care about poverty. Even in relation to the charged issues of race and nationality, the Conservative Party is keen to distance itself from the xenophobia that marked its last election campaign.

However, there remain weaknesses and serious challenges ahead. The key lesson from Britain and abroad is that it is never too early to start planning for these issues. To defend what New Labour has done requires absolute clarity about what has not been done, and what remains to be done.

 

The forward agenda: weaknesses and challenges

By the test of what it actually promised to deliver in 1997, New Labour has overperformed on most of its formal targets. But politics is about more than ticking boxes, and the diagnosis of New Labour’s weaknesses must be more profound than (legitimate) disagreement about tax, PFI or labour market regulation.

The Government has worked hard over the last four years to develop a compelling narrative that adequately defines the values and ambitions of modern social democracy. Post-war revisionism in Britain, as in Germany, emphasised the ethical value of equality in contradistinction to the instrumental value of public ownership. The new Clause IV adopted in 1995 speaks of placing ‘power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few’. But a commitment to equality on its own provides an incomplete description of a Government committed to environmental sustainability, safer communities, democratisation and greater individual liberty.

Hence the debate about the Third Way of the British left. Part historical, part philosophical, part electoral, the Third Way has established itself as the central point of reference for debates about the future of the Left from continental Europe to Brazil and even China (1). But the Third Way has thus far been defined negatively rather than positively – not the new Right of the Conservatives and not traditional social democracy. Ironically, the same weakness is attached to Lionel Jospin. A recent biography is entitled Monsieur Ni-Ni, in reference to his slogan ni nationalisation ni privatisation (neither nationalisation nor privatisation). The book argues that he too has suffered from lack of clear and positive political definition.

When Ministers are busy in their departments, the attention to the central story of politics can be lost. The story to be told is essentially a simple one – about the development of civic and social institutions that provide opportunity and security to all, and not just a few, in a world of change. We all need to find compelling ways to tell it.

Second, governments are often defined by their institutional legacies. In Britain, the NHS and the Open University are great Labour achievements. The current Labour government can claim enormous advance in the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. In health, it has created the world’s first 24-hour, nurse-led, internet and phone-based health line – NHS Direct. There is a new University for Industry – learndirect – offering internet-based tuition for adult learners. In welfare the Working Families Tax credit has a group of some 2.5 million people who are genuine stakeholders in its continued existence. Independence for the Bank of England represents a seemingly permanent shift in the structure of economic policy-making. But these initiatives do not yet command the popular allegiance of the most successful institutional innovations. In a political world where votes are less governed by class and tradition, and voting itself is increasingly a lifestyle choice, the Government needs to ground its policies in accessible and effective institutional form.

Third, contrary to the rabid press hunt for ‘cronies’ and placemen, the Government has not turned New Labour into an all-pervasive political movement. There are many who consider the Government to be better than the alternatives – trade unions, sections of business, parts of the voluntary sector, local government. But that is not the same as a cohesive social movement – as has been achieved by the most successful, genuinely hegemonic social democratic parties. A coalition for change, supported in civil society, academia and the media, is a prerequisite for long term political dominance.

Changes within the party, rather than the government, may hold the key. Labour’s machine that was built to climb the mountain into government needs to be re-engineered for government. In my view that means turning local branches into the champions of local reform and renewal, working in an increasingly pluralistic local climate with other local institutions. In other words we need to build a local machine capable of winning campaigns – whether for more accessible health care, economic reconstruction or new priorities in education – as well as of winning elections. In this way, the party may be able to combine the discipline necessary for politics at any level with the flexibility and dialogue that is increasingly demanded by citizens, not to mention the media. As tentative evidence emerges that people are too smart to take media sensationalism at face value, we should remember that newspapers as well as politicians can get out of touch.

In truth, however, Labour will only maintain its position on the high ground if it does more than tackle existing weaknesses; it must anticipate changes in the economy and society, rather than wait to react to them. On the domestic front there are four tough and important issues.

Firstly there is the question of equality, which all socialist and social democratic parties have somewhere close to their core. In Britain there has been a debate about the balance of equality of opportunity and equality of result – despite the fact that the two are intimately related. Equality, and addressing existing inequalities, are vital to today’s politics. This is not to say that debating the meaning of equality is unnecessary. However, Tony Crosland got it right when he wrote nearly thirty years ago:

A practising politician in the Britain of the 1970s, not cerebrating in a monastery cell but living day by day in the thick of things, is not required to answer the examiner’s question: how much equality ultimately? He has plenty of harsh, specific and unmerited inequalities to combat in the next ten years (Crosland 1974).

Despite nearly five years of Labour government Britain remains a country scarred by divisions of class – and those divisions stretch between generations not just within them. So relative social mobility – the chance of a son or daughter of a manual worker becoming a doctor, relative to the chance of the son or daughter of a doctor being an accountant – has remained unchanged in 100 years. In South Tyneside, only 17 per cent of 18-year-olds went to university. Labour’s challenge is to make itself not just the party that tackles existing inequalities but also the party of social mobility.

This is one reason for the continuing importance of education to Labour’s purpose and appeal. Tony Blair famously said in 1996 that his top three priorities for government were education, education and education. In two election manifestos, education has been the number one priority. It needs to stay that way, as a motor of social and economic advance, and a key issue for electoral mobilisation. It would be a challenging social experiment to give some of the poorest children the resources spent in private schools, and see how much difference it would make. In fact, American research suggests that big extra education spending is required to increase expected wages (as a proxy for life chances). The racial divide introduces a special dimension but it is sobering to learn that spending on black children would need to be at least ten times that of white children to even out their life chances (Roemer 2000).

In the future, in education, tax and benefits and social policy we have to provide more ladders for people to develop their potential. One example of how we have to rethink our approach came to me when I visited a welfare to work project in my constituency – to promote mobility you need to help people build careers and not just get jobs, and that means extending the reach of the labour market service into work and not just into the ranks of the unemployed.

Secondly, the story that is out of the headlines but in fact critical to Labour’s success is economic policy. The good news is, obviously, that growth and employment have been sustained despite inclement international conditions. But there remains a huge job. Britain remains stubbornly underproductive. The full effects of a settled and successful macroeconomic regime have not yet been felt, but productivity data suggest a serious gap with France and Germany, never mind the US. Our economy is regionally unbalanced, and sectorally unbalanced, in a way that the average figures for growth and employment can hide.

Labour’s challenge is help each region of the country develop an industrial strategy based on its needs and potential, and to develop its sectoral strengths so that we maintain and enhance our world-beating industries, from pharmaceuticals to the media. It is increasingly difficult to talk about the competitive advantage of nations; industrial policy must now be governed at a regional level (2). Every DTI grant or regulatory intervention should be tested for whether it could be better administered at local or regional level. Certainly in the North East, for example, the key to building a world-class centre of estuarial and offshore industry lies in a unique combination of businesses, skills and regional public intervention, perhaps supported by but certainly not administered from Whitehall.

Thirdly, and relatedly, Britain remains bedevilled by centralisation and weak local government, despite the success of devolution. This is a particular problem in England. The Borough which I represent is twinned with Wupperthal (which probably has a population twice the size, amounting to some 300,000 people); a comparison of the respective powers and budgets is instructive. It is not just that one has an elected mayor and the other doesn’t. The German system has created real dynamos of economic and social development at local level. South Tyneside has a proud tradition of delivering services, but it is now challenged to provide the community leadership that has become part of the German scene.

Elected mayors have not provided the stimulus that many expected, hoped for or feared. The Local Government White Paper provides a platform for a serious discussion of the combination of finance, political structure and service functions that are necessary to break the continuing gridlock of centralised control.

Finally, any party of the left must be alive to the politics of insecurity. This is not just a question of employment insecurity – an issue highlighted by Robert Reich in the early years of the Clinton administration. Insecurity is about more than economics. Insecurity brackets together issues of crime, public services, finance, identity and foreign policy. If you fear to go out, you are insecure. If you fear that the local hospital is not good, you are insecure about getting ill. If you are worried about the governance of your funded pension, you are insecure. If you are worried about immigration, you are insecure. And if you think anti-terrorism measures are not working you are insecure. This is a powerful cocktail, exploited by the right in Italy and Austria, and one which the left must define and address on its own terms. A progressive narrative about insecurity would address head-on its financial aspect by rethinking the role of the welfare state for a society of changed work and family patterns. Such a narrative must also articulate a conception of the UK as a multi-national, multi-cultural country, in which communal values are sustained. And as I argue below, it must help develop a modern conception of Britain’s place in the world.

It is important to be honest about these challenges ahead. It has always been a hallmark of revisionism, back to Eduard Bernstein, that revisionism never stops. There are always new frontiers to be conquered.

 

Next steps

New Labour’s challenge is fundamental – to maintain and renew its political definition. It would be easy to say that the wining formula developed from the ruins of the 1980s serves us well, and should continue. ‘Triangulation’ helped parties gain credibility and definition, and brought into sharp focus the new offer we were making to voters. But New Labour needs to define itself positively not negatively, for what it is for, not for what it is against.

That is a much harder task while the shape of modern Conservatism is so confused. But incumbent governments must continue to provide their own definition of themselves, or their opponents – and events – will do it for them. In the UK, a dualistic structure is the result of our electoral system. In the rest of Europe, where more proportional voting systems make for a more multifaceted political picture, the dynamics will be different. I would put the following three ideas on the table as we approach our common challenges.

First, we need to remember that it is themes not policies that win elections – as Al Gore discovered to his cost. Themes without policies lack substance, but policies on their own are arid. Who we care about and how we connect with them are the two key questions for political strategy.

We need to ensure that our values drive our politics and our policies, so that we remain a government rather than an administration – the difference between electing politicians and letting civil servants run the country. Values are the fertile soil on which politics is based. On the basis of clear values, we need to establish clear goals. These are the tall tree trunks that mark the landscape. Only then can policies find their place – these are the branches, invisible from a distance or at a glance, but fine grained up close.

For example, our values say the right to work is a foundation of social and economic inclusion. An associated goal is that anyone who works full-time should be able to support their family. Only on this basis does the goal of integrating the tax and benefit system to reward work become clear and comprehensible. Labour needs to clarify these links so that in the midst of the blood and thunder of political campaigning it retains this sense of mission and purpose.

Second, Labour needs to stay in tune with changing Britain. So we need to prepare for a new political landscape, with a new received memory as its backcloth, and fast social change to the fore. It is up to us to tap into the new emerging currents of British life, and gain strength from them. There are risks in this strategy. It is important not to be caught up by fads, or to lose sight of the fact that older people, more set in their political ways, are far more likely to vote than their younger counterparts. But the dynamic currents of society are vital to a progressive party.

These vital currents are mobilised around issues that combine values with ideals – most notably in relation to the environment, an area where the government has substantive achievements to its credit but has not found a way to shout about them; and this is also an area where the next phase of reform involves difficult decisions, as well as the ‘win-win’ solutions of energy efficiency. Similarly, there has not been sufficient attention drawn to the government’s equally crucial efforts in the fight against global poverty, though Britain’s contribution to the international coalition on this issue is better recognised than on some others.

There are also more prosaic trends that may become important: the growing group of ‘active retired’ are a resource for our community and will become increasingly politically active; local identity and diversity need to play a stronger role in public services and economic and social renewal; and as we have increased employment to record levels in the UK, so the debate about the quality of work, and the management of time have the potential to rise up the agenda – confronting the issue of why a country three times richer than fifty years ago seems less fulfilled.

Thirdly, in providing a coherent narrative for citizens that speaks to their lives and priorities, national governments must weave in international as well as domestic priorities. In the UK, the government is marked by twin commitments to investment and reform to modernise public services, and secondly to play a leading role in the construction of the EU to help tackle problems that cross national borders. The Prime Minister has said that the international is now domestic – that is a consequence of globalisation. This has profound implications for social democratic politics.

In the halcyon days of the post-war welfare state, the foundations of social democratic power were the national state, a relatively homogenous working-class base and a benign international framework. Each of those foundations has now been shattered. In the last ten years we have started to rebuild the state’s capacity to act as an enabler and not just a provider, steering political change. We have come to terms with the changing composition of our class base. But the international situation, and the demand for international political leadership, is a new dimension.

We must develop and champion a hard-headed multilateralism, idealistic enough to be true to our values and credible enough to influence the US. Destructive capacity – military, judicial and economic – needs to be allied to constructive political engagement, whether mediating regional conflicts, promoting economic and trade relations, or simply building dialogue with the Islamic world. We cannot do this alone. Our membership of the EU, and our capacity to shape the EU as a progressive instrument, is key.

I do not believe we are at the point of creating a country called Europe or a state called the EU. But we are broadening and deepening the unique hybrid that is the EU – part intergovernmental, part supra-national. Too many aspects of our future depend on what we do together, as the EU is challenged to move beyond congratulating itself for preventing war, to help build prosperous peace. Social democrats need to find a way to make a distinctive contribution to the debate about the future of Europe to strengthen their agendas for reform at home. The Convention on the Future of Europe must not become bogged down in institutional minutiae, but should instead work from the substantive agenda facing Europe to tackle the ‘delivery deficit’ that currently undermines popular support for the European project.

 

Conclusion

The greatest lesson I have learnt over the last eight years is about the dynamic of politics. When I joined the Labour team in Opposition in 1994, we were insurgents. Today, as incumbents, we have to retain the spirit of insurgency, always revising and moving forward to maintain the political momentum. There are simply no prizes for standing still because politics abhors a vacuum, and in the world of permanent, multi-outlet media, that is more true than ever. The charge come election day is always that reform has been insufficient, never that it has been too sweeping or too radical. And if we do not fill the vacuum, the opposition will.

So perhaps the surprising conclusion, given the plaudits four years ago for the organisation and media professionalism of New Labour, is that ideas are more important than ever. Notwithstanding the difficulties of modern politics, the simplistic nature of the modern media, the sound bites and the fragmented national conversation, ideas matter, because without them the campaigns get pulled apart. There is no promise of success, because events can conspire against ideas, but without ideas there is no hope.

 

Notes

1. Tony Giddens has established himself as a key point of reference in The Third Way and The Third Way and its Critics but other significant contributions have come from, for example, Cuperus et al., 2001.

2. Colin Crouch, Patrick Le Gales, Carlo Trigilia and Helmut Voelzkow, in a recent book entitled Local Production Systems in Europe: Rise or Demise?, conclude that despite the pressures of globalisation, the exploitation of local comparative advantages remains absolutely critical to economic success.

 

References

Cuperus, R., K. Duffek and J. Kandel (eds) (2001), Multiple Third Ways, Amsterdam/Berlin/Vienna: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Crosland, Tony (1974), Socialism Now, London.

Roemer, J. (2000), ‘Equality of Opportunity’, in Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles and Steven Durlauf (eds), Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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