Interview: David Miliband
The foreign secretary explains why he remains a liberal interventionist abroad, and a radical decentraliser at home
On liberal intervention, great power rivalry and climate change
DAVID GOODHART: Let’s look back at the story of liberal interventionism over the last ten years and the apparent return of great power politics in recent weeks—and how they are linked. The use of violence to solve international problems has not been very successful, and arguably we are now getting the boomerang back in Georgia. If we want a rule-bound world, haven’t we got to stick to the rules?
DAVID MILIBAND: Well, violence rarely solves things and the definition of liberal interventionism is not violence. The origins of liberal intervention is the now-hackneyed view that we have a self-interest—not just a moral interest—in the actions of others because of global interdependence. It’s also about “responsible sovereignty”—the responsibility of states to their own people according to certain universal values, but also the responsibility they have to the international system. That’s where I start the debate about when it’s right for a state or group of states to interfere in another state.
So what’s actually going on in international affairs at the moment? There are three big shifts in power. First there is a shift from west to east, with the rise of China and India. Second there is a shift between the national and the international spheres, with the growth of regional and global institutions. Third there is a shift between states and citizens, what I call the “civilian surge”—the idea that around the world people who have hugely different access to opportunities and wealth nonetheless inhabit an increasingly common universe where mobile phones can tell bloggers in Iran or protestors in Burma or street kids in Nairobi about how life can be—that creates a different context for international politics. Overshadowing these three shifts is the question of whether the rule-based world that seemed to be emerging after the cold war becomes entrenched; or, is there a danger of a return to great power politics? There is a danger of this return, of a scramble for power and resources. Is it in our interests to promote a rules-based world? Yes. Do we have to follow the rules? Yes. Does it invalidate liberal interventionism? No, I think it gives it a great impulse.
ROBERT COOPER: Intervention is not a recent invention. There was plenty of it during the cold war and a lot of it was very destructive. Then in the 1990s we were initially too shy about intervention—it’s clear that a relatively small intervention in Rwanda would have saved an enormous number of lives, and it’s also clear that we were late in the Balkans. Now maybe we became too enthusiastic, but it’s clear that sometimes the use of force may at least create the conditions for solving problems.
DOMINIC LAWSON: What is it we owe the people of this country? Do we owe them an ethical foreign policy; or do we owe them a policy that has as its chief objective that we are not beaten in the battle for energy resources—the new great game. You will say that we can do both. But can you?
KISHWER FALKNER: One problem with the way you describe things is that liberal interventionism is predicated on a view of shared values which did not materialise after the Berlin wall fell—I’m talking about China and Russia. Also the idea that the great power idea is defunct is not true—great powers are alive and well, just using different tools.
MILIBAND: You are right, there is a question about whether there are universal values—I think there are, but that’s a different discussion. Second, I don’t know about great powers, but there is a superpower, and that’s the US, and I think it will remain larger and more powerful than any other country in the world for a long time to come. However no one country any more can be sure it will get its way, and that is a big change, and that’s why I think that neither a hegemon nor a balance of power model will be able to deliver the stability and order that we want—and that’s what puts a premium on building the rules-based system. Will we succeed? It’s an open question. But one of the preconditions is probably the spread of democracy, not just a five-yearly ballot but also the supporting infrastructure, a free press and all of that. I think I’m right that between 1970 and 2000, instead of 30 per cent of the world living in a more-or-less democratic system, 60 per cent did. And that progress has stopped, or may have gone into reverse in some places. However, if you look at what Africans say about democracy, they want it.
GOODHART: So do we need a league of democracies?
MILIBAND: You want to support the development of democratic institutions and countries, and an organisation devoted to it is a good thing; but that is different from all the questions that arise with a “league” or “concert”—which we are discussing with both US presidential candidates.
COOPER: If you want to solve problems like global warming, then it doesn’t do any good to divide people like this into sheep and goats.
FALKNER: And what about our great trading partner, and geopolitical friend, Saudi Arabia coming in? What about Egypt, Pakistan and so on.
MILIBAND: Well let’s talk about Pakistan. It brings out in acute form a tough political dilemma. Many of the solutions that good, liberal, people support take a long time to mature. And the problems of people trying to kill our troops are happening today. So there’s the temptation to back the strongman who can bring order. Pakistan is an interesting test case for that, as the military is the strongest institution in the country and has ruled for half of the last 60 years. But I think that the value of a legitimate civilian-elected government with a civilian-elected president outweighs the downsides. If you believe that the hearts and minds of the people in the border areas matter to the lives of our troops—which I do—then you need democratic and legitimate institutions.
FALKNER: So a Taliban democracy headed by a Pakistani version of Mullah Omar would be in the west’s interests, with their hands on the nukes?
MILIBAND: All the evidence suggests that what people in Pakistan care about most is employment, access to justice, development and good governance. And when I asked Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the Awami national party in the northwest frontier [a secular party in the tribal areas of Pakistan] what would happen if you had normal party competition in the tribal areas, he said we’d clean up—it wouldn’t be the religious parties who’d win.
FALKNER: But they didn’t clean up.
COOPER: There is no such thing as Taliban democracy. But if you’re talking about Pashtuns with strong Islamic views who are happy to accept alternance of power, then what’s wrong with that?
FALKNER: So Iran as a democracy is fine by us, and we’re happy to have Iran with nuclear weapons?
MILIBAND: Our complaint with Iran is first of all that its nuclear policy is a huge source of instability especially when combined with the fact that it is threatening to blow Israel out of the water, and second that its human rights abuses are unspeakable…
FALKNER: I’m trying to get to the philosophy behind this—I’m trying to work out how much of a “realist” you are in recognising that democracy and human rights and liberal intervention are appropriate only where we can employ them successfully—and, let’s face it, the last ten years have been patchy. I’m asking how pragmatic are you? We stick to liberalism when we can, and occasionally we, or BAE Systems, have to do unpleasant deals with people we don’t like…
MILIBAND: One of the most feeble criticisms of the government is that it believes in “what counts is what works.” If you’re saying to me, am I pragmatic in the sense that I have values and ideas but if I see they will have a negative impact somewhere, will I go ahead anyway? Of course not. That’s why I situated this debate in these various shifting relationships between the nation and the global community and the nation and its own citizens—we’ve got to fashion a rules-based international doctrine for these new times. Eleven years on from 1997, it is a different world. Russia has invaded a neighbour; the situation in the middle east is very different, and so on.
RICHARD REEVES: A liberal like John Stuart Mill would have said that unless people want democracy badly enough to go and get it for themselves, we should have nothing to do with it. On the other hand if a country invades someone else, that’s different.
MILIBAND: If there is not a big external relevance to the human rights record of a country, it is right that we pursue relatively soft power mechanisms to support change—and supporting people to make their own change is better than telling them what to do. But in extreme cases you do intervene. Rwanda and the Balkans become very relevant here.
GOODHART: What about Kosovo? People weren’t being killed in large numbers.
MILIBAND: Almost a million people got shifted out of their homes. But why do we care? First, because the Balkans are on the edge of Europe, and instability there is a dangerous thing for many of our European partners and to some extent for us. And second because the displacement of a million people and thousands of people being slaughtered is something we should be interested in. It’s both.
GOODHART: Russia now uses Kosovo against us.
MILIBAND: But wholly without foundation.
LAWSON: So what’s our policy when soft power fails with Russia? The Russians are pushing the Georgians around in those enclaves, just as the Serbs mistreated the Kosovan Albanians.
MILIBAND: President Sarkozy’s going to Moscow tomorrow to assert the rules of the road—the rules that have developed for the way in which boundaries are drawn should be respected. But there are no military tools to stop Russia doing what they’re doing in Georgia, that’s the long and the short of it.
GOODHART: Aren’t we then promising Ukraine and Georgia too much? You’ve taken the hardest line in Europe on Russia. How do you back that up? How do you prevent Russian aggression?
MILIBAND: The most important way is to build up our friends. We do that by embedding them in strong institutions. Look at the Baltic states. Ten years ago, the scepticism now expressed about Georgia and the Ukraine was applied to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia—how can you say you’ll defend them if the Russian tanks roll in to Tallinn? But we haven’t needed to. Now, it’s different for Georgia and the Ukraine, because the history of Russia in the Caucasus is different from its history in the Baltic…
LAWSON: But you’re saying that if we had recognised Georgia and made it a member of Nato, the Russians wouldn’t have acted in the way they did?
MILIBAND: In a way, my argument is a traditional argument in favour of national sovereignty. The principles I’ve been defending over the last few weeks have been in part territorial integrity; in part democratic governance and national sovereignty; and in part the international rules of the road. Second, I think it is relevant to consider to what extent Russian leaders are dependent upon the international system. What’s interesting is the stunning silence, in terms of international support for Russia. People are sitting in other countries, around tables like this, saying, hang on, we’ve got more to lose by the breakdown of the international system than we have to gain from it. And in Moscow they’ll be saying similar things—they’ll notice their stock market has gone down by 40 per cent since June, with Gazprom losing $16bn in just one day in August. And they’ll be wondering, can you have the benefits of an international system without the disciplines?
COOPER: Countries like Russia often seem to win in the short term—but in the long term, lose. That’s the story of the cold war. It takes a long time.
GOODHART: Let’s move on. Climate change. Can it be beaten without big changes in western lifestyles? And if it can’t be—and there seems little evidence that western publics are ready to make the sacrifices—what do we do about it?
MILIBAND: This is not a technical problem. The technologies that we need exist, or are on the horizon. It’s a collective action problem and a sunk costs problem. Once you build traditional coal or gas-fired power stations, you’re stuck with them for quite a long time. So the choice is not between an economic growth lifestyle and climate change—I think it is high carbon lifestyle versus low carbon lifestyle. And the question is should it be more costly to have a high carbon lifestyle than a low carbon one—which it already is, because 60 per cent of our emissions are now in the EU carbon trading scheme, so every tonne of carbon that’s emitted has a €25 premium on it that’s passed to consumers. I think it’s a collective action problem internationally and that means embracing the principles of social justice and mutual responsibility. If the way you try to achieve your emissions reductions is socially unjust at home, you’ll never achieve it; and if the deal is socially unjust internationally, you’ll never get a deal either.
GOODHART: But multilateralism is getting harder isn’t it? Partly because we are living in the middle of this shift in global power from west to east. Doha has failed. A deal on climate change in Copenhagen is looking problematic.
MILIBAND: It’s important to recognise that the collapse of Doha, the Russian/Chinese veto of the Zimbabwe resolution in the UN, Georgia—these are the canaries in the coalmine. They are of a piece with each other. And the truth is we’re not just trying to make multilateralism work, we’re trying to make multi-multilateralism work, because you have not just one system, under a UN aegis, but many systems, a multi-layered chess game.
GOODHART: Is this just a transitional issue, while power shifts from the west?
COOPER: No, it never stops. But that’s also positive, because if you look at the world now and you look at the world 20 years ago, you have places here and there where the rules system has acquired greater traction. China in the WTO, for instance, is actually a big plus for the system.
GOODHART: If the Lisbon treaty dies, does it stop us making EU foreign policy more effective?
MILIBAND: The Lisbon treaty does do some important things to make the EU more effective, but even more importantly it promises to bring to an end the institutional wrangling for at least ten years. If we don’t pass Lisbon, Europe will end up returning to institutional questions, and that will not be to the benefit of any future British government—Labour or Tory. If the Irish don’t pass it, it won’t pass, so we’ll have to live with that.
I was at the EU foreign ministers meetings on Friday and Saturday. And at one level it is all rather bureaucratic with 27 people having their say about Russia or transatlantic relations—and it goes on for hours and hours. But it’s a totally different EU on both of those issues, because you’ve got these 12 new members. You’ve got people who were part of the Warsaw pact talking about Russian psychology, you’ve got a completely different balance—never mind a market now of 500m people. And that’s why I think although the tactical advantage now seems to be with the Eurosceptics, that this is a huge strategic weakness for the Tory party, and a huge strategic strength for us, that we have a clear view of what the EU should be doing. I think that Europe doesn’t sell itself well, that it needs big reform in all sorts of ways, but it’s a civilising force in the world today.
COOPER: The EU is a model for the kind of world that we need if we’re going to solve problems like climate change, where it’s very tedious, but everybody has a chance to have their say, and they listen to each other and eventually make a deal. It’s not going to be a world in which one country dictates.
GOODHART: David, what are European values? You used the phrase in your recent Kiev speech.
MILIBAND: They are Enlightenment values.
GOODHART: Are they distinct from western values?
MILIBAND: I think you can talk about Euro-Atlantic values. And there is a slight self-preening about European values—but it’s a phrase I used deliberately in Kiev, as I think it’s a profound question as to whether Kiev is a European city or not.
FALKNER: Would you have used it in Istanbul?
MILIBAND: Yes, I would. I think Turkey has made irreversible changes. I’ve been there twice now in the last year, and in this whole question of public and private spheres it has embraced liberal democratic norms—the ruling of the constitutional court is very significant. In terms of strategic interest, too: the world is a far safer place if Turkey is a strong partner of the EU, and a member of the EU, than if it’s rejected by the EU. Just think about the energy question. The whole issue of Russia and the Caspian is changed if Turkey is in the EU.
GOODHART: What’s the balance sheet on Iraq?
MILIBAND: It’s established the possibility of a strong democratic country in the middle east. The Kurds are safe. But there has been massive loss of life, Iraqi, American, British and others. And a big shake up of the regional balance, especially for Iran.
GOODHART: Would we have done it if we had known what would happen?
MILIBAND: If we’d known there were no WMD, there would have been no UN resolution, so the whole thing would have been different.
REEVES: How confident are you that we played by the rules of the road that you talked about earlier?
MILIBAND: I think we did play by the rules of the road. Look, people are never going to change their positions about 2003 and the last five years, but the next five years are there to play for, and in ten years we will know who was right and who was wrong. We do a six monthly risk register in the foreign office, what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong, and in the last year Iraq has gone better than expected.
FALKNER: But in five years’ time we won’t be looking back at Iraq and worrying about who was right and wrong, but saying that this unleashed a new kind of Islamic radicalism. Iraq was seen as illegitimate and imperialist and an attempt to impose liberal western values. Everywhere I went in the Muslim communities of the north of England—campaigning against the war—I met people who confused Palestine and the Afghanistan intervention—which I supported—with Iraq, they were all lumped together. When we look back at a Europe riven by Islamism, it will be the Iraq war that we point to.
MILIBAND: I disagree. It’s not the Iraq war, it’s the absence of a state for the Palestinians—that’s the biggest foreign policy driver for Islamic radicalism. Forty-one years after the 1967 war, that is the calling card for violent extremism, I’m afraid. I did a public meeting with the Pakistani foreign minister in Birmingham, and what was the issue raised? It’s Palestine. If you’re a Bangladeshi, if you’re a Kashmiri, if you’re a Pakistani, if you’re a Somali…
FALKNER: The people that you’re talking to are not the people who are strapping bombs to themselves.
GOODHART: Are you saying that British foreign policy should be determined on the basis of what Muslim communities in the north think? As you yourself said they’re often not even making a rational distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq.
FALKNER: But my argument is that Iraq was the catalyst for these people to get organised.
REEVES: David [Miliband] is saying, let’s wait ten years and see. Kishwer is saying, we can already see it was the wrong thing to do because of the result. But surely, you can do the right thing which can then have terrible, unintended consequences, so that you may wish you hadn’t done it. The rightness or wrongness of the original decision is separable from what has happened since. So the rules of the road thing does matter: were we, in letter and in spirit, true to the rules of the road when we took the original decision? This is the key question for me. Where do you stand on that, David?
MILIBAND: According to the evidence that was available at the time, not just to British intelligence but everyone else’s too, we were. The mystery was why did Saddam have all those dossiers which tried to prove his WMD capacity.
GOODHART: What about Afghanistan? Have we bitten off more than we can chew there?
MILIBAND: People often say the Russians had 200,000 soldiers and they couldn’t subdue it. How are you going to do it with 8,000 Brits? The answer is, we’re not trying to create a colony. We’re trying to support a democratically-elected Afghan government with all the difficulties that that country faces to make itself safe for its own people from the return of the Taliban. Can a country fast-forward itself through the centuries—not to turn itself into Tunbridge Wells, but to make itself into a state and a nation that functions in some sort of way. And I think that we have a massive self-interest in that. Sure as night follows day, if we weren’t there, the Taliban would be back in a big way.
FALKNER: Will we stay the course in the numbers necessary? Do you see us being there in 2015?
MILIBAND: We will be there supporting the country’s development. But whether our combat troops will be there is a different question. Put it this way: the Afghan army has 63,000 people; its target is 122,000. We are there to build an Afghan security force that can hold sway. It has been a bloody summer. But, if you talk to the people who are now in Helmand they will say that Helmand has made progress. But it’s a mixed picture.
On British politics, the future of Labour and the left
GOODHART: Let’s turn to domestic matters and Labour’s troubles. It is often said that people knew what New Labour was against but never what it was for, and that didn’t matter when the Tories were weak, but now that they aren’t, it does.
MILIBAND: Well, I think we do know what we’re for. But it’s certainly true that triangulation has reached an end. Triangulation was the politics of the 1990s and it doesn’t work today. I think there are a number of factors that go into the current circumstances. First, the success of New Labour in redefining the political contract has been profound: the fact that every other party now takes the things that they opposed post-1997 as being the starting point. Second, the problems in domestic policy, as in international, are very different from ten years ago. Third, renewal is a very difficult thing to do when you’re in government, especially if you’re a third-term government. Fourth, it’s doubly difficult to do when you’ve got an economic downturn going on.
REEVES: You once said that themes, not policies, win elections. What’s your big theme?
MILIBAND: I think it’s clear. In the postwar period, the dominant word associated with politics was “need”—I need housing, health, employment, education. And the mechanism for its delivery was the state. In the 1980s, the dominant word was “want”—I want shares, to own a council house—and the dominant mechanism was privatisation and deregulation. The ground over which politics is fought today is “can”—I can as an individual, we can as a community. I would supplement that emphasis on the theme of empowerment by saying that people also want protection, because there are both low probability but high catastrophe risks, such as terrorism, and high probability but generally low impact risks, like climate change. People also want a sense of belonging, people want to have a sense of their own place, they want to live somewhere that recognises their worth. Those three things—a sense of empowerment, protection and belonging—are what give you confidence. And I think that this takes you right into a fusion of liberal and social democratic visions.
GOODHART: Does the gap matter: is reducing inequality, as well as poverty, vital for Labour?
MILIBAND: Of course it is. First, you cannot care about poverty and define it in a sensible way, as relative, without caring about the gap. Second, I think there is an issue about the norms of society. Unjustified inequalities need to be attacked. So then you ask about whether it is earned, what is it a reward for? This is where I think the left has strength. Because it has a rich philosophical tradition—Rawls, Walzer, Sandel, Sen—that helps it navigate its way here.
REEVES: You said that if you care about relative poverty you have to care about overall inequality. But what you should really care about is the gap between people at the bottom and people in the middle. What seems to happen in the Labour party is that what people really care about is the gap between the middle and the top, so they invent a new category, the super-rich. And it’s true that inequality at the top has soared. But the question is what do you do about that politically? I would say it marks an important distinction between a radical liberal and a social democrat. A social democrat just wants a post-tax income distribution that is more equal. But if you’re interested in people’s life chances at the bottom, what matters is the bottom and the middle, you don’t care if some people are making a fortune.
MILIBAND: Richard, you’re knocking down straw men. First, is it the case that the distribution of income matters? Yes. Then you talk about how you measure it. I think I’m right in saying that between the top 20 to the bottom 20, the rise in inequality has stopped and even narrowed. Ditto the top 10 to the median income. Then there is the top one per cent. I think it is people earning well into six figures. The gap between the chief executive and the average salary on the shop floor has exploded, and in the end this is a reflection less of market forces and more of moral norms—it is a reflection of society as much as it is a driver of society. What really hacks people off about some of the top 0.1 per cent is when they get extra for underperformance. People want checks and balances that discipline the abuse of market power.
GOODHART: What about a slightly higher marginal rate for the very rich, kicking in at about £250,000?
MILIBAND: We went through all this before the last three general elections. But there is a bigger issue here about how New Labour has changed the party. When you used to ask about equality and inequality, people immediately get into an argument about income. Income does matter. But the first question that New Labour taught the party to ask was, as Amartya Sen has put it, “equality of what”: income, or opportunity, or wealth; also equality of rights. And this is where I think we are the inheritors now of a very much enriched political tradition; our discussion of equality exists in at least four or five of these dimensions. The gains for equal rights in the last ten years have been greater than any other ten year period in British history. So it’s important to recognise that when people assess their own lives, of course income matters, but it’s not the only domain in which equality is measured.
LAWSON: London has become the financial centre of Europe, perhaps of the world, and you get £25bn per year from ludicrously-paid city people which otherwise you wouldn’t have got. There is a powerful pragmatic argument for not disturbing that.
REEVES: David, you read the shift in incomes at the top as symptomatic of a set of moral norms which is something a lot of Conservatives would agree with, rather than as a case for state intervention.
MILIBAND: Moral and mechanical reform have to go together. My whole argument about marrying the liberal and the social democratic traditions is that one starts with the individual and the other starts with society; one starts with liberty and the other starts with equality; but there’s no reason these goals should be in opposition. And in terms of how you achieve them, if you think about the issues that people care about you’re not going to solve them by state action alone, or market mechanisms alone, or through individual action alone.
GOODHART: New Labour increased public investment and the size of the state but does not seem to have restored the legitimacy of the public sector. Could this be one reason why—notwithstanding vague unease about the super-rich—hostility to the new inequality is relatively muted, people don’t trust the state to do any better with the money?
MILIBAND: I think New Labour has established a new consensus about the importance of investment in education, health, childcare, and transport through state taxation. Think, for instance, of how the debate on pensions has shifted. The Tories attempt to wrap themselves in “progressive ends” is testimony to our ability to shift the political landscape. But I think you are right that people do not always trust the central state to spend money effectively on citizens’ behalf. It can feel distant and bureaucratic. That is why I believe we have to devolve money down to the lowest possible level. Sometimes that will be to the individual—whether that is direct payments and individual budgets in health and social care. Sometimes it will be the neighbourhood. Sometimes it will be towns and cities with more freedom to set local priorities.
REEVES: Are you still happy to describe yourself, as you once did, as a liberal socialist?
MILIBAND: Yes. Social democracy is a good tradition, but the SDP complicated the politics. But I feel happy describing myself as a European social democrat. If someone said: do you have socialist values? I would say absolutely.
GOODHART: You often talk about this marriage between radical liberalism and social democracy, but I’m most sure what it means now. Before 1979, Labour was not interested in constitutional reform, in dispersing power, in individual rights, freedom of information and so on. Since 1997, we have had a social democratic government that has been very interested in those “liberal” things. New Labour was the marriage. But what does it mean now?
MILIBAND: First of all, politics in Britain is broken in fundamental ways, both in its culture and structures. We’re far too Napoleonic and centralised in the way we organise our affairs. We need far greater pluralism in the distribution of power. We’ve devolved power to Scotland, Wales and London, but not enough to the rest of England.
LAWSON: What about elected chief police officers, or more elected mayors?
MILIBAND: Elected mayors have been a good innovation. I think it’s better to have stronger local authorities than a multitude of different bodies. But in the end we’re going to have to get to grips with political structures, financial structures, power structures—to give far greater pluralism in the distribution of power. In some areas you want high national standards, most obviously education and health, you don’t want postcode lotteries, but in a range of other areas you do want far greater devolution. So I don’t think the devolution agenda is over at all. And there is the question about how one tries to establish a whole different culture of politics. Of course you still need government leadership, you need institutional innovation and you need popular participation. That was the interesting thing about my idea of personal carbon trading. The basic idea is simple. Every citizen gets a personal carbon allowance. If they use up less carbon than their allowance, they can sell the excess to those using more electricity, gas or petrol. I think people will contribute to emissions reduction if they see government fulfilling its responsibilities and business too.
GOODHART: That sounds fine. But the political class has become very homogeneous and you have, if anything, rather a stifling policy consensus between the parties. How do you breathe life into politics in such circumstances, when people have stopped joining parties? Is the blogosphere the place where the political debate now takes place?
MILIBAND: Any politician that says they have all the answers on this is lying. Part of the vibrancy of the US political scene relates to its structure, both its decentralisation and its openness; secondly, it throws people up for a presidential election in a way that is different from us. I do think the idea of the party as a homogeneous group who agree on everything is dead. I don’t think one should go blog-crazy—because you can seem a bit nerdy—but it is a radically open forum, you put yourself at the mercy of anyone’s comment. Even in my small attempt at this, people can say what they like, and I read what they say, and learn something. There is something in the wisdom of crowds argument.
REEVES: Historically, the party system used to be much more fluid, and people would vote different ways in the House of Commons, and then with mass democracy it got more solidified—but the party political system doesn’t serve people as well today. Why don’t we reduce the power of the whips somewhat? If you’re a pluralist, David, surely you’d want to reduce the power of the whips?
MILIBAND: Part of the problem is that central government is legislating on everything. You may be right that the political party is a declining force, but at the same time this is a society which is more educated and where people are more conscious of their rights and where information flows more freely and people’s passions about the state of their country, community and world remain strong. In that vacuum, something is going to form. It could be single-issue movements. I don’t know. Parties have to reform themselves and the party that succeeds will win a big political prize.
REEVES: Presumably proportional representation within Westminster would be a good thing. It’s when you combine the party political system with first past the post, you get a kind of double lock…
MILIBAND: But I’m not so suspicious of government power that I want to neuter it from doing anything. I think the right model for government is a strong executive checked by a strong legislature, rather than a weak executive with a weak legislature.
GOODHART: Is there a wider crisis of European social democracy? Most big parties are in a mess.
MILIBAND: There is a rebound going on. We were in clover in 2002. And governments everywhere now are unpopular. But there are eddies and flows. The Spaniards won last year. The interesting thing about the third way was that it was also a third way within the Labour party. It took, for example, pro-Europeanism, which was seen as being on the right within the party and it yoked it to support for the minimum wage which was seen as being on the left; it took tough on crime, which was seen as being on the right, and it yoked it to a sort of new left concern about reform of the state and individual rights; it built a new coalition within the party that said that the old right and the old left within the party were not the answer, and you had to find a third way, and this is where the marriage of the liberal and social democratic tradition matters. New Labour was not a faction within the party, it was a new coalition.
GOODHART: Are the energy and climate crises going to provide a new impetus for the left? To solve them will require domestic and global social justice—as you pointed out earlier—plus a big role for the state and perhaps a new rallying cause too.
MILIBAND: There is something in this idea of a red-green future. Over the past century, Labour has been reinvigorated by drawing on the most dynamic currents in society. From the trade unions who founded the party, and the “New Liberals” after the first world war, to the movements for equal rights in the 1960s and 1970s. Labour needs to harness the energy and idealism of the environmental movement. The Conservatives will always struggle to deliver green ends with conservative means: in particular, their belief in free markets, a minimal state, and Euroscepticism. Labour can become the natural home for environmentalists in mainstream politics. Tackling climate change is not an add-on to Labour values, but integral to achieving our economic and social goals. For example, low carbon energy is an anti-inflation strategy as well as a climate change strategy. Countries that go energy independent, that get themselves off oil, are locking in low inflation. And the poorest in our country, and abroad, will suffer the most if we don’t move to low-carbon energy.
LAWSON: Not if low carbon is more expensive.
MILIBAND: If you had to bet now on the next decade, you’d say the oil price will go up and the renewable energy price down, because one is getting scarcer while the other is becoming more available.
REEVES: I remember you once said that one of the big problems with British politics was the speed with which ministers moved on. One example is personal carbon trading, which you kicked off with a big speech as environment secretary, and everyone got very excited—but then you were moved on and it got kicked into the long grass.
MILIBAND: The whole point about good ideas is that they don’t die in that way.
GOODHART: If we have to ration energy, that will be good for the left, surely.
MILIBAND: Carbon trading is not rationing, it’s about individual choices as to what relative value you place on income versus consumption. Everyone gets the same allocation of emissions. And then we all have huge choice about how we either live within that or how we buy our way out of it. But the studies do, indeed, suggest that personal carbon trading would be progressive. It would redistribute money from richer households who tend to consume more energy to poorer ones.
GOODHART: What about broken Britain? You mentioned it in your Guardian article—implying that it was obviously “piffle” (as Boris Johnson says) but that Labour had allowed it to pass largely unchallenged. Do you want to say anything about it now? Why have the Tories latched on to it? And why do so many people seem to believe it?
MILIBAND: I think the broken Britain tag says quite a lot about the Tories. Of course, there are problems in our communities. Knife and gun crime, alcohol, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour. We have to fix them. But let’s be clear: crime has fallen under this government, so it’s wrong to be fatalistic about our ability to make a difference. Instead of knocking the achievements of the police, of teachers in deprived communities, I think we should praise them, and say thank you. We need to build a more “can-do culture,” not a defeatist one. On the question of the broken society, the mayor has got it right.
REEVES: Triangulation and the third way—which brought election success—are dead. What next?
MILIBAND: If you say to people that the Labour agenda is about control of your own life, protection from the risks that exist, and a real sense of belonging to your nation and community…
GOODHART: How does this differentiate you from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats?
MILIBAND: I think the dividing lines are clear. We believe in giving people more power and control over their lives. But we believe that the government has an active role in that story: ensuring people have the money, skills and entitlements to take control. The Tories believe that a sense of belonging is fostered when the state withdraws, as though it crowds out the voluntary sector. For them it’s a zero-sum game. I think the evidence points in the opposite direction: state action can mobilise voluntary and community effort. Protection—whether it is tackling climate change or caring for the elderly—requires both state action and personal responsibility. But straddling all these areas is the question of equality—and the fact that it is the poorest in society who often feel the most powerless, the most vulnerable to crime, and most excluded from their wider community. The Tories say they want to contest this agenda. If they want to fight us on equality of opportunity, I say bring it on. The idea of progressive ends and conservative means, which is what the Tories are now saying, gives away their game. There is nothing disreputable about saying that you really believe in liberty before social justice, but the Tories have apparently given up on that. Yet it’s a nonsense to believe that you join the Conservative party to pursue progressive ends. You don’t join the Tories because you’ve got a passion for social justice.
LAWSON: Under Mrs Thatcher, the Conservative party was very radical.
MILIBAND: This is where the Tories have got a bigger problem than we have. While you can say that there are real tensions in reconciling the liberal and the social democratic traditions, how you reconcile a radical Thatcherite agenda with a traditional Conservative agenda, I do not see. I think the Tories have had a project for the electability of the Tory party, not for the future of the country, and I think that that is their fundamental problem. Now, it is up to us to ensure that the question becomes more and more about what they have to offer, and not just about us. The reason that I’m confident about this is that I think that we are philosophically, intellectually, but also practically, in reasonable shape.
GOODHART: What about if you lose Scotland?
MILIBAND: Look, it says everything that there is this unholy alliance in which Alex Salmond is depending on a Tory government to run a campaign in 2010 to break up Britain. The ultimate irony. And a good argument for a Labour government. We are the only one nation party left in Britain.
GOODHART: You’re in favour of self-determination all around the world. If the Scots vote in a referendum for leaving, will you be relaxed about it?
MILIBAND: I would bemoan it because I think it would be bad for them and bad for us.
GOODHART: Do you want to be PM, one day?
MILIBAND: I want to be a really good foreign secretary. I’ve got a great job.
LAWSON: That’s what Sarah Palin said about being governor of Alaska.
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