David Miliband may have had to downsize his ambitions since his defeat in the Labour leadership race last September, but that has not stopped him from thinking. Nor, apparently, has Miliband’s brief period in the wilderness diminished his cult-like appeal to members of his faithful fanbase. Last night at the LSE, the one-time academic base of his father Ralph, the queue for returned tickets stretched almost as far as the line of ticket-bearers shuffling into the lecture theatre to hear David speak.
Despite a joke about missing the start of last night’s Champion’s League tie between his club, Arsenal, and Barcelona, David Miliband’s demeanour was sombre, contemplative, even low key. His theme was the unprecedented electoral decline of the centre left across Europe, diagnosing the problem as follows, “Left parties are losing elections more comprehensively than ever before. They are losing from government and from opposition; they are losing in majoritarian systems and PR systems; and they are fragmenting at just the time the right is uniting.”
Early in the speech—first highlighted in the March issue of Prospect—David quoted the LSE’s motto, “Know the causes of things.” Yet if there is a criticism of this long speech, it is that it failed comprehensively to answer a key question: why the right was better able than the left to take advantage of the recent crisis in capitalism? Instead, Miliband merely emphasised the fact that the crisis was not merely a problem of regulation but also a crisis of markets themselves.
Miliband did not shy away from talking specifically, albeit briefly, about the position of the left in Britain—even taking a coded swipe at those who believe the left’s decline can be explained by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He presented a powerful analysis of new Labour’s failure to balance coherent radicalism with the creation of a successful party machine. Later, in the Q&A, he added that new Labour “made a lot of change in a lot of areas” as opposed to “spectacular change in a few areas,” pointing to constitutional reform and secondary education as areas that fell short. And in a strikingly solitary reference to his brother, David said that “In Britain, median wages stagnated after the dot com crash, in other words well before the financial crisis. This is the squeezed middle whose position Ed has effectively highlighted.”
Ultimately however, Miliband’s approach looked well beyond Westminster, a place David Miliband is said to find frustrating at times. “The European Left is losing elections on an unprecedented scale because it has lost control of the political agenda to a newly flexible right,” he said. “[But] it is also losing key arguments about how to nurture human values in today’s connected and competitive global village because it has not responded to changes in economy and society; and that to turn things round it needs to address both its deficit in ideas and organisation.”
He pointed out that while the British 2010 general election was “the second worst result (for the left) since 1918,” the same pattern has been repeated across Europe, with the left taking historic beatings in Sweden, Germany, Holland, France and Italy over the past four years.
This trend is not, said Miliband, “some accident or cosmic joke being played by destiny. There are real reasons that need to be understood if we are to move forward on any other basis than waiting for the right to run out of steam. And they are only properly visible if you look across the six countries and join the dots.”
Attempting to join those dots, he emphasised the need to make globalisation sustainable and the need for a coherent left against the backdrop of more disparate groups than ever before, covering everything from green campaigners to the alienated working class. And he pointed out that “if you look across the six countries there are three groups of voters we on the centre left are losing. All three groups have a class base and a set of values that they feel have been violated by the centre-left.”
This “splintering of the left…is an electoral problem in itself,” he said, “and has a ripple effect on a second group of voters. Centre left parties are losing middle income, swing voters, often young parents, in part because of coalitions with the left and Greens.” Of course, “the primary reason is tax and spending issues. These voters have a good lifestyle and don’t want to lose it. They certainly don’t want to trade part of it in for more generous welfare systems.”
Touching inevitably on immigration, and the linked issue of poverty, Miliband recognised a failure on the left to come up with a consistent position on people’s sense of security and community. But, crucially, he did so without calling, as many centrists do, on the left to split the difference with the far-right. David Cameron’s controversial speech on the failure of multiculturalism this was not.
Finally, there was a personal touch when Miliband declared that think tanks were “not enough” in politics. That was an echo of his admission on Sunday that he had spent much of his time in them, and now he wanted to focus on how left of centre politics affects people on the ground, including with the ‘Movement for Change’ begun by him and adopted by his brother.
Concluding, Miliband offered a rallying cry: “there is a lot to fight for. And a lot worth fighting for. Because losing elections is not just one of those things. It is damaging for the people we represent, the countries we inhabit, and I would argue too for the world we share.”
James Macintyre is joining Prospect as politics editor and is co-authoring a biography of Ed Miliband