David Miliband was the first Labour leadership candidate to sit down with Left Foot Forward and answer the questions crowd-sourced with our readers. In his Westminster office this week, David Miliband took questions on the Budget; Labour’s future policy platform including climate change, growth, and inequality; why the party lost the election; and how the party should re-engage its base.
He described the Budget as “Herbert Hoover economics”, the “economic philosophy of the hard right”, and “full of smoke and mirrors”. Mr Miliband criticised the coalition for trying to “reshape the country in terms of its welfare and other social provision – in the name of restoring economic balance. And the grave danger is that this budget is very bad for our economy as well as our society.” He said that Labour’s task was to make the case that:
“deficits are sometimes necessary – not immoral, and that the historic role of government is to reform the private sector so that it creates more wealth – not that it just distributes it more fairly – the historic role of social democrats over the last century”.
Criticising the role played by the Liberal Democrats in delivering a regressive and largely avoidable Budget, the former Foreign Secretary said, “[the coalition] has marked itself out as a deeply reactionary government, with some little helpers in the form of the Lib Dems.” Turning to the environment he said, “the jury is at best out on whether they are going to deliver [the targets in the Climate Change Act]”. He went on to describe the area as one of the key points of contention between the two parties:
“The aversion to nuclear power by the Liberals and the aversion to wind turbines by the Tories is a pretty potent combination.”
Asked about David Cameron’s Big Society, the leadership candidate conceded that, “we have allowed ground to be created for him to pretend to occupy … We should say we stand for a bigger society; we’re not against a big society”. But he rejected the Red Tory criticism that new Labour had been too individualistic: “it would be surprising for a lot of people – take the people in the new deal for communities for example – to hear that we were insufficiently communitarian in the way we thought about social exclusion and social disadvantage.” But he went onto question the individualistic approach to tackling poverty:
“There is no doubt in my mind that the child poverty target as defined by individuals meant that the woman who is doing two jobs and gets a tax credit but knows there are syringes in the playground where her kids play doesn’t feel like she can help child poverty.”
On the vexed issue of immigration, Miliband attempted to draw a distinction with the other leadership candidates. “I’m saying the same thing to everybody, whether it’s to a BME hustings on Saturday or to you,” he said. “You can’t get into a position where you say ‘oh no, it’s only the underlying factors’ and you don’t want to be in a position where you say it’s just your immigration policy. You have to do both.” Diane Abbott has called immigration a proxy issue while Andy Burnham and Ed Balls have set out changes they would make to immigration policy. David Miliband only policy suggestion was “on the way the system’s managed”.
Asked why Labour had lost in 2010, he said, “in ’97 we represented change and reform – in 2010 we didn’t.” He went on to say that the party had “ground to make up” on housing and anti-social behaviour. And that, “Gordon suffered because people said well you’ve made one speech about crime in your three years as PM – crime should be a big Labour issue. And it wasn’t something Gordon was comfortable talking about.”
Finally, in addressing the role for party members, Mr Miliband talked of a “tripartite arrangement” between local Labour parties, community organisations, and trade unions. He said, “We’ve actually got to be advocates of a different way of doing politics – but also a different way of organising society. On members’ role in policy making he called for the party “to look at the national policy forum and other policy making structures in the light of Robin Cook’s dictum – that the Labour party went from being the party of dissent in the 80’s to the party of discipline in the 90’s without going through a phase of debate and dialogue.”
Read the full transcript below:
Let’s start with the Budget. What was your overall impression of the decisions the Coalition made?
I think first of all it dramatises the seriousness of the challenges we face, and that’s bad – this budget is intended to be a major turn in the direction of the country, both in terms of its economic policy and in terms of its social policy. The grave risks to our economy – the pain and injuries that will be caused to the poorest communities in the country, and communities in the middle actually – mean that anyone who doubted the seriousness of Labour’s task in terms of being a fighting opposition as well as an alternative government got a rude awakening on Tuesday. The idea that this is a government that is going to mark time I think has been well and truly blown out of the water – it has marked itself out as a deeply reactionary government, with some little helpers in the form of the Lib Dems.
Secondly, by any token, this was an v, with no real pretence at the social consequences – accept to say that the full horror of the public spending is not going to come clear until the autumn, which I think is quite important. What that means is that issues of political economy come centre-stage again because we have to make the argument that deficits are sometimes necessary – not immoral, and that the historic role of government is to reform the private sector so that it creates more wealth – not that it just distributes it more fairly – the historic role of social democrats over the last century.
We also have a responsibility to become effective opponents of this budget including exposing the small print because, far from being a transparent Budget as Osborne claimed, it is full of smoke and mirrors. Just one thing I’ve seen today – one of the reasons they assume unemployment’s going to come down is that they make no allowance for unemployment being sticky – in other words that someone is more likely to remain unemployed if they have been unemployed for 6 months. It’s full of hidden tricks.
We also have to become advocates of an alternative – and that’s the responsibility of a fighting opposition – but we also have to be an alternative government.
Do you think an admission is necessary that decisions made by the Labour government were partly responsible for what ended up happening?
There was a fiscal stimulus, in the form of VAT cuts and other measures, in the last two years. But the preponderant creator of the deficit was the crash in tax revenues – above all corporate tax revenues and financial services tax revenues. I think most people would accept that there was a bit of a slip in the Budget speech because Osborne said that it was caused by the financial crisis.
What we’re seeing here is politics structuring the economics. And these are small-state Conservatives and they have found a cause, or an excuse, in the form of a deficit that needs to be brought down to prosecute a small state argument. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing really, what they’re going to try and do is reshape the country in terms of its welfare and other social provision – in the name of restoring economic balance. And the grave danger is that this budget is very bad for our economy as well as our society.
Although the left is winning the argument that the Budget wasn’t “fair”, we appear to be losing the argument that the Budget wasn’t “unavoidable”. Do you accept that – to coin George Osborne’s phrase – we went into the recession having not mended the roof while the sun was shining?
Our claim is that the Tories are taking a grave economic risk. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating – so I wouldn’t say that an argument has been lost or won on the economy in the last few days. The truth is, I think, we won the argument that they are taking a huge gamble – what no-one knows is whether the gamble will pay off. What we’ll see in the next couple of years is whether or not the rosy assumptions of a short-term hit on growth are true – or whether in fact it will be a far blacker scenario.
Second thing to say is that the Tories supported our public spending until November 2008. The Tories went out of their way in the three years after the 2005 election to say they supported what we were doing.
We are not just commentators sitting in a senior common room – politics can still affect peoples’ lives here. The Tories backed those spending decisions.
During the pre-crash period David Cameron started talking about quality of life. Since the crash the French with Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen have looked at alternative measures of wellbeing to GDP. Do you think there is some merit in that agenda and do you think we should be looking at it?
Well of course, but only in the following context. My constituents in South Shields want to be richer – I want them to be richer, I want them to be materially richer and they want to be materially richer. And when we talk about being against inequality, we’re talking about making people materially richer. We’re right to do so. However to be materially rich is not necessarily to make you happy, which is the [Richard] Layard argument among others. That’s why it’s right to say we should be looking at what kind of growth? How sustainable is the growth? What sort of society are you? I think you used the word ‘alternative’ in your question – looking at GDP+, rather than an alternative to GDP.
It looks like the Tories want to take public spending down below 39% of GDP, maybe below 38%. Do you think there is a sort of golden level that social democrats want to be at so that we can do the things we want to do?
No, because it depends what you’re spending on. Mrs Thatcher spent 43, 44, 45% of GDP endlessly in the 1980’s but she spent it on the wrong things.
The income transfers and public services are an important part of tackling inequalities of wealth and opportunity but they are not the only way to change the balance of power and opportunity. Of course public spending is important – so is the regulatory role of government, so is the political and economic rights you give to people. So I think it’s a false argument to pin our colours on the mast of a particular share of national income being spent by government over a particular period of time, especially when that period is a long way off and the interlude is going to be one of the most uncertain periods for a very long time.
On the environment, how can we inject a sense of urgency into addressing this problem in the face of declining public support?
First take climate change out of the environment box – presumably you’re talking about climate change even though you haven’t mentioned it. It’s interesting you call it an environmental issue – I don’t. I think climate change is an economic issue, an energy issue, it’s a security issue… and I think the first move is to take climate change out of the environment box which is where it becomes ghettoised. The whole purpose of the climate change bill which I created was to make this an issue across government, not just an environmental issue. I think that’s really important. We should be using budgetary arrangements of the climate change bill to make this a cross-society issue.
Secondly, I think the scepticism that is being fuelled, is at least half scepticism over whether anything will be done or whether other [nations] will do anything. It’s much less, in my experience, scepticism amongst the public over whether climate change has happened. It’s sort of a futility. There’s a fantastic book by Albert Hirschman called the ‘Rhetoric of Reaction’. He shows how all our arguments have three or four key changes, part of which is the futility thesis – which is that the right wing argue what is the point of us reducing our carbon emission if China is producing five new power stations every five minutes. We have to take on the futility argument, not just by moral suasion – but also by showing that by taking action we will get reciprocal actions from others. Thirdly we have to make it easy for companies and people – we have to bring it down to the human level.
Do you think that the Coalition Programme, with all its policies, will deliver on the Climate Change Act targets?
If they can deliver slow growth then they might! There’s nothing like recessions and slow growth to reduce emissions. I think that the jury is at best out on whether they are going to deliver it. I think that there is a lot of scepticism, and I’m pretty sceptical. The aversion to nuclear power by the Liberals and the aversion to wind turbines by the Tories is a pretty potent combination.
What else would a Labour government do on climate change?
I think that we have got to have an absolute change in terms of the public sector on the procurement side – where there has been huge institutional inertia against using public procurement on the green agenda. Which I think has been a massive drag.
Why is that?
I think that there is a deep-grained hostility to the idea that efficiency can be green in the British system. It’s short-termism that is problematic. There’s also a big issue on procurement, local government is a big issue – underplayed – I think that Andrew Adonis is doing a great job on transport but I think that has further to go. Cycling and trains. There’s far more to do.
What’s your assessment on why Labour was slow off the mark on this, not withstanding what you and your brother did later on in time in Labour’s time on office?
I think Tony [Blair] himself said that he was too averse to the regulatory burdens – or he was too taken in by the regulatory burdens.
Do you think David Cameron is on to something with the idea of ‘big society’?
I think that we have allowed ground to be created for him to pretend to occupy. Is the focus on redistributing power as well as wealth and opportunity something we should be taking more seriously? Yes. That’s why I spent a long time making speeches about it. It can be uncomfortable to talk about the redistribution of power but we have to do it because the ‘I need’ mentality of the 1940’s is not adequate for today – the ‘I want’ mentality of the 1980’s… Thatcherism re-born… is not adequate – the ‘I can’ and ‘we can’ mentality of the 2010’s is where the Labour party should be.
We should say we stand for a bigger society; we’re not against a big society – what you will do by withdrawing the role of government is to, essentially, turn the third sector into a charitable sector (which is where it was in the 19th century). Our danger though is if we are not standing for an empowering form of government, we stand for big government – and people don’t want big government.. If you stand for big government you’re not allowed to attack the big society – and we allowed that to happen. Though actually we’re about empowering people, the fact that one of my friends was told at his local swimming pool that he couldn’t take his three kids there, because the government tells him, that shows there is a problem. We allowed that to happen – we have to contest it. So is he on to something? That people feel they want more control over their lives? Yes. Can we then trump him on it? Absolutely!
There’s a critique by Phillip Blond and others that successive Government’s, including New Labour with its focus on aspiration – a bigger house, a bigger car, a foreign holiday a year, have encouraged individualism. Do you think that that is right?
It’s generally people who go on foreign holidays who say that people shouldn’t worry about going on foreign holidays. So beware. People who have lots of TVs say people shouldn’t worry about having many TVs. Generally people who have good nice houses – preferably lots of them – say that people shouldn’t worry too much about their housing. In South Shields I want a stronger market economy not less of a market economy – and there are big parts of the country that don’t have a dynamic enough market economy.
Point two – it would be surprising for a lot of people, take the people in the new deal for communities for example, to hear that we were insufficiently communitarian in the way we thought about social exclusion and social disadvantage. However there is no doubt in my mind that the child poverty target as defined by individuals meant that the woman who is doing two jobs and gets a tax credit but knows there are syringes in the playground where her kids play doesn’t feel like she can help child poverty. So do we have to be a ‘we can’ party as well as ‘I can’ party… we must. Community became… people felt it was a bit too fuzzy, and they didn’t know how to overcome the problem of the organization of local government – they didn’t want to go in for big local government reorganization. There were all sorts of issues – transport body isn’t the same shape as the metropolitan body… health authorities aren’t the same – so local government never became the unifying factor that in fact it should be in local democratic political life. Do we have to reclaim that? Of course we do. The danger of the big society for us is that, although its soft soap… or snake oil, the danger is people relax to it because we seem insensitive to that need for real empowerment of communities and the diversity that goes with it.
Local government in England has not benefited as it should have done from our emphasis on devolution. We’ve devolved to Scotland, Wales, London… touch wood, to Northern Ireland – English local government hasn’t benefited in the same way. The set of English questions are big questions for Labour and we’ve got to be in on them in a big way. Part of that is about localisation – all the chaos that it brings and the sense of loss of control, part is about the mismatch between need and support in respect to things like housing, part is about immigration and identity – and those are felt differently in significant parts of England than they are in other parts of the country. You have to think about the sense of distance people feel from their strategic health authorities… how that’s run, distance and lack of funds in relation to how their police authorities are run – are part of a set of English questions that we have got to address. I would say that some of the things that I want to get back into – I had this idea of ‘double devolution’ – because the ward where policing and GPs and local counsellors and housing meet… there is a common unit across those services. You’ve got your community beat managers, your GPs, your local counsellors, your housing planner – I think we’ve got to think very very hard about how you integrate… how you build communities. How you build community at a time of big flux in social relations
And what about immigration? A lot of people didn’t like the tone that the debate was taking? What’s your view? Do we have a good immigration policy at the moment?
Most people who look at this say “we’ve got a pretty good policy now, but why didn’t we have it earlier?” And I think that’s fair. The truth is that we spent a good part of the first term sorting out asylum which has basically disappeared. In 2002 it was a massive issue but I think we have good policies at the moment. The principle that Europe has to manage its internal flows of people is accepted now.
I also think the arguments against the cap outside Europe is very strong – either the cap is meaningless or it’s damaging. What the government were going to try and do is catch us on the principle of the cap [and claim] that we believe in uncontrolled immigration, when actually our position is that we have to have a cap that works. Now, the cap of course… there is already a cap on unskilled labour. Students we want to come here. So you need a good immigration policy. But you also need to address the fact that – it was generally in areas where there were high levels of immigration, and there are genuine issues about wages in certain professions and housing and schools … also in areas where there are very few immigrations – immigration was a big issue or cited as a big issue. What that tells you is that you need to deal with a whole set of economic and social factors as well. That’s why Diane [Abbot] and others talk about immigration being a proxy issue. I’m saying the same thing to everybody, whether it’s to a BME hustings on Saturday or to you – you can’t get into a position where you say “oh no, it’s only the underlying factors” and you don’t want to be in a position where you say it’s just your immigration policy. You have to do both.
Does that mean there are additional things we need to do on immigration policy itself?
Well the biggest thing we have to do is on the way the system’s managed. I don’t have a high immigration caseload, but any MP that does will tell you that there have been improvements in the way the system is managed but there is still a massive administrative job. There are still people that are part of the backlog – eight, nine, even longer years. I think there will come an issue if Turkey ever gets into the position of joining the EU, but it’s not going to be in this parliament so it’s not a major issue for us.
The other bit of community cohesion that I think sometimes gets missed is the pursuit of less inequality. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s thesis says that less inequality is a means itself to other social goods. Do you buy that thesis?
I think less inequality is part of the definition of a good society, so it’s both a means and an end – if that’s what you’re asking. I actually published the first ever Wilkinson article outlining this thesis in a book called ‘Paying for Inequality’ in 1994, where Wilkinson set out his thesis including civil service examples. Crossland said that the job of socialists is not to sit in seminaries debating the amount of inequality that is acceptable – it is to go out and find inequalities and reduce them. I subscribe to that. Does the floor matter? Yes. Does the gap matter? Yes. Should you try and reduce? Yes. Do you want to get into an argument about how much you want to reduce it? Well no. We know it’s too big and we want to do something about it.
The other thing I think is important is that everyone has swallowed this argument that we failed on inequality and there are two problems with that. We didn’t fail – we were actually better than any other OECD country apart from Mexico in reducing inequality. Related to that, critically, Michael Waltzer wrote his ‘Theory of Justice’ for a reason. If you only think about income inequality you’re going to miss legal inequality, between men and women… on grounds of sexuality and disability, you’re going to miss wealth inequality, you’re going to miss the social inequality of connections and networks. One of the reasons I was passionate about summer schools when I was schools minister was that you get people into the networks that matter and it makes a real difference to their lives. And it’s why this national internship service that I’ve been talking about may sound slightly prose but is actually really important. So the gap does matter – it’s just what you do about it.
Should there be a wealth tax or a land tax of some kind?
I’ve said that we shouldn’t be afraid of the mansion tax, and obviously there are arguments for taxing property that make it highly efficient, meaning the property doesn’t actually move.
You’re committed to the Alternative Vote and proportional representation for the House of Lords. What do you think of the Alan Johnson argument that Labour should be pushing for a referendum, when it comes, with a wider range of options than just AV?
We have to take this one step at a time. I think that David Lipsey’s argument that AV is an important step is a good one. I think we’ll over-complicate this if we open it up further. Or complicate it rather than severely complicate it. I think the Tories are going to do their best to harpoon this anyway.
Why do you think that under Labour there was such slow progress in terms of House of Lords reform and electoral reform?
It was dismissed as a middle-class issue. What the expenses scandal has shown is that it can be anything but a middle-class issue and it can bite you back if you’re not careful. I think it’s important that we don’t just get bogged down with the structures of new politics – we have to address the culture of the old politics and the culture of the old politics was about everything from women’s representation to respect for local government to the way that we nurture under-represented groupd in politics… to the way in which the Commons works, and the way we address work/life balance issues of poor people – so I think there’s a bigger agenda there. So new politics has got be about more than structure – it has to be better than punch n’ Judy.
If the next election is contested under the alternative vote how does that change the Labour Party’s strategy? What would be different to if we went in under FPTP?
We try to maximize our votes in any circumstance, but we also have to make sure that people who want to vote to other parties that claim to be on the progressive side of politics – that we get their vote. I think what is important is that it will play out more on a local level than on the national level.
Looking back at the election defeat, you and Liam Byrne were very clear about Labour’s loss with C2s. But Labour also lost lots of votes with DEs and has lost votes across every social group since 1997. Why do you think Labour lost both aspirational voters but its “core vote”?
Well DEs have aspirations as well – you have to be really careful. I’ve never bought into this idea that middle class people are aspirational and working class people aren’t. I think it’s quite simple, fundamentally – especially if you contrast it with ’97. In 1997 we were perceived to be on people’s side. In 2010 too many people thought we weren’t. Secondly, in ’97 we represented change and reform – in 2010 we didn’t. The truth about 2005 is that just enough people still thought we were on their side and represented change and reform. Despite Iraq and all the rest… Now the 10p tax was corrosive in terms of our expression that we were on peoples’ sides. This was a change election and we did not, through our manifesto or our actions in government, represent change for people. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.
New Labour was uniquely successful in winning three elections – no other Labour government had done that – because it embodied enough of the interests and aspirations of people across the social spectrum. It built a coalition that was able to represent those aspirations. And it had an agenda for reform and change which, while challenging at times, nonetheless made people think my god these people know what they’re up to and they’re willing to take on the interest that will oppose them. Whether it was the windfall tax in ’97 – which everyone supports, or education reform which was more controversial.
So the language matters. Was there a lack of policy that suggested we really were on people’s side?
I think we’ve got ground to make up on housing and anti-social behaviour. Gordon suffered because people said well you’ve made one speech about crime in your three years as PM – crime should be a big Labour issue. And it wasn’t something Gordon was comfortable talking about.
We’ve got to reclaim ground I think on education and welfare as the people who are able to stand up for the right values but also change the system to make it work for people. We’re proud that we reduced the number of schools on less than 30% of 5 A-Cs at GCSE from 1,600 to 260. But I wouldn’t be happy if my kids didn’t get 5 A-Cs at GCSE. If 7 out of 10 planes aren’t landing at an airport your pretty worried. So if 7 out of 10 kids aren’t getting 5 A-Cs at GCSEs you should be worried. It’s not enough. That’s why the answer I gave on Saturday – “How do you combat the Tories on education (Michael Gove’s blathering on education)?” First, you make Lib Dem and Tory MPs worried that they’re going to lose their seats [in general]. Second, you expose as well as oppose. Thirdly, you have a better plan for improving schools.
I think the financial recession obscured what we were up to. Incapacity benefit was actually going down by 2008. It’s our plan that everyone on incapacity benefit gets checked and put onto the ESA. Not many people know that. Since 1919 that’s been the policy of every government. So we have to reclaim that ground and there are ground areas where we have to forge new ground – jobs and industrial policy, tax and spending where we have to be the people pushing on not just with fairness but with transparency and hypothecation and other issues that open up the agenda there. We have to be ready for that. We have to reclaim ground, forge new ground and make up for lost ground. Its going to be a different Britain in 2015 or 2020 – so we’ll have to have a new policy agenda.
There are many good local campaigns in the election – Birmingham Edgbaston, parts of London. How do you think the party should reform to embrace this local action?
I think that the party should be born of a movement, rather than a movement being born of the party. That means first that the party needs to seek out allies, locally, and you do that by being open in your structures and your way of working. Second you’ve got to be a party that’s about campaigning not just machining. And thirdly you got to ensure that when the party does need organizing it does it with the maximum number of people and the most effective way of doing so. Which is why issues like the membership fee and the size of the membership are important and, as you know, I think that the community organizing tradition has a lot to teach us in the same way that we have a lot to teach the community organizing tradition.
I think what’s interesting is that Trade Unionists want to be part of that too – a sort of local tripartite engagement. And the fact that we’re in power in more places that have more councillors mean that we have to be more than protectors of Labour – of our communities – from a Tory government. We’ve actually got to be advocates of a different way of doing politics – but also a different way of organising society. I think we can do that if we take the non-machine area of society.
The first principle of political organizing is to focus on people not programmes. I always say to people that the first item on a Labour party agenda is what are the minutes of the last meeting? What’s first on the agenda of today’s meeting? But we have to try to tap into people a sense of ideas, purpose and motivation. That’s the vital need for the party – to have this much closer link to movements of change locally.
Labour members often say, “we want a role in policy making. We feel like we haven’t been heard”. But when you go to a London Citizens meeting they are determining London Citizens’ campaigning priorities and voting on them – is there a greater role for this?
The reason I proposed the elected party chair is that you need someone at a senior level who is able to articulate some of those concerns. Secondly you mentioned campaigning – we have a national policy forum but not a national campaigning forum. That cannot be sensible in the modern world, especially when you don’t have to have a meeting to share campaigning ideas. Thirdly, we have to look at the national policy forum and other policy making structures in the light of Robin Cook’s dictum – that the Labour party went from being the party of dissent in the 80’s to the party of discipline in the 90’s without going through a phase of debate and dialogue – I think that we should learn from that. I don’t think there’s one way of doing it. We’ve got to be open-minded about how we capture the best of the policy making interest of the party.
Gove talked this week about the Conservative / Lib Dem council in Camden – well we voted them out. For those people the surest way to affect the next Labour party manifesto – is not by passing a resolution, it’s actually by doing something on affordable housing… safer streets… decent jobs – that we can then learn from. The Labour government, whether you’re a councillor, or in power, need to be a pioneer of the sort of ideas we believe in. One benefit of having the leader of Labour in local government in the shadow cabinet, which we’ve never had before – which I propose – is that you get that organic linkage but also very practical linkage. This is the way you show what a difference it is to have a Labour council and not a Tory council and we need to take that to the national level.
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