da “The Guardian”
There are a number of reasons why politics around the world is splintering. The most important is quite simple. The process of globalisation, defined by the intense interconnections of economics, culture, security and environment that characterise the modern world, is posing fundamental questions about purpose and strategy for the traditional centre right and centre left. As I have left politics, and am living and working in the US, distance lends some clarity and perspective to these questions.
For the centre right, the challenge is how to reconcile support for globalisation – notably for the free flow of capital and trade – with traditional conceptions of social order. Hence the split between cultural conservatives and economic liberals.
For the centre left, the question is how to combine the engine of growth and opportunity that is globalisation with limits on inequality. It is true that this is not a new question. After all, the first Mitterrand government in France, from 1981-83, tried to build socialism in one country. But it failed. Its successor (also socialist) government instead made real progressive strides while seeking to manage global change rather than defy it.
British Labour in the 1980s went through a similar debate to that in France – but out of government. We tried proposing withdrawal from the EU, nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies, unilateral nuclear disarmament. The electorate sent us packing. We tried tempering the package, moderating its most fanciful elements, and lost again. And again.
Only when we convinced ourselves, body and soul, that the programme was undesirable as well as unelectable could we convince the electorate to trust us again. It was not the abandonment of our principles that allowed us (100 years after committing to do so) to create the national minimum wage after 1997, but instead their proper application.
Given the collapse of the Lib Dems, the stakes now are very high indeed, not just for Labour but for the country. Get it wrong, and Britain could become a multiparty democracy with only one party – the Conservative party – that can win parliamentary majorities. A one-governing-party state.
The choice is between two distinct approaches on the centre left to politics after the financial crash. The first can be seen in the flickering Occupy movement after 2008, and more seriously in southern Europe today. It is essentially the Syriza programme of January 2015. Founded in the face of austerity that has cut average living standards by between a quarter and a half, and delivered youth unemployment above 50%, it pledges defiance.
The tragedy in Greece is that no party has managed to stand against austerity and for reform. The tragedy for Britain and specifically for Labour would be to fall for what is actually the false Conservative claim of the past five years – namely that the country is on the brink of becoming Greece, and that political divisions are on Greek lines.
But Britain is not Greece. Neither in terms of our deficits and debts, contrary to the government’s claims about its inheritance from the last Labour government; nor in terms of the political choices we face today, contrary to Jeremy Corbyn’s demand that Labour become an anti-austerity movement on the Greek model.
The alternative to Syriza/Corbyn is based on passionate reform, not angry defiance. Clear-eyed about the dangers of inequality, the corrosion of the public realm, the weakness of international political cooperation relative to economic forces, the necessity of domestic institutional change, it does not seek to fight the next election as a party of angry protest but instead as one of reforming government.
The Corbyn programme looks backwards. The pledges of nationalisation, 7p in the pound increases in national insurance for those earning more than £50,000, and equivocation about Britain’s place in the EU are the same ideas that I learned were wrong when I joined the Labour party in 1981.
Who should I vote for in the Labour leadership election?
The claim from the Corbyn camp is that there is no alternative. But there is. These ideas focus, for example, on how to tackle the secular stagnation in median wages; how to redistribute power to cities to spread economic wealth; how to modernise the education curriculum for a creative age; how to build a secure, low-carbon European energy future; how to make the welfare state an effective springboard out of poverty; how to combat humanitarian catastrophe where it occurs and before it becomes an immigration crisis on the shores of Europe.
I would argue that this is more idealistic, not less, about the capacity of people to come together to build a movement that can change lives. It seeks to use state power as a rapier not a bludgeon. It recognises that progressive change is a hard grind of persuasion, but all the more fulfilling for that. It sees allies in Europe and Nato rather than strangers. It believes Conservative voters can become Labour voters.
Above all, it seeks to build a party that is more than a pressure group shouting from the sidelines at a Conservative government. The participation of 600,000 people in the leadership election is a significant mobilisation. But the task for the Labour party is to reflect the hopes and win the trust of 60 million people.
The task for the Labour party is to reflect the hopes and win the trust of 60 million people
I know from experience the challenge and demands of running in a leadership campaign, so I have good reason to respect the commitment and integrity of all the candidates. I have been struck since the beginning of the campaign by the plain speaking, fresh thinking and political courage of Liz Kendall and the new generation of politicians – Chuka Umunna, Emma Reynolds, Tristram Hunt – who have declared their support for her. From industrial policy to the devolution of power, from housing to education, they got the message from the 2010 and 2015 elections that trying to turn the Labour clock back to the pre-Blair era made no sense. The calumny that they are simply repeating the ideas of the 1990s – or that they are Tories in disguise – is no more true for its steady repetition. The ideas, aspirations and big questions articulated in this campaign, about how to live up to Labour’s constitutional commitment to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few, will not go away.
Nor will the gauntlet laid down in Yvette Cooper’s speech last Thursday. Cooper argued passionately and effectively for a positive reformist vision and against the siren calls of “defiance” of the Corbyn campaign. There is nothing defiant or desirable about unworkable policies and undeliverable promises. There is only defeat.
Labour is only successful, in fact centre-left parties the world over are only successful, electorally and in government, when they recognise the difference between knowing your own mind and defining your own reality. The former takes deeply held values, applies them to the facts of the day and seeks to shape the future. As such it has the ability to be a force for good. Just look at the things people celebrate about Britain today, from the NHS to gay rights. The latter approach fatally seeks to adjust the facts to fit the values. It is a recipe for feeling secure but not doing any good.
The leadership election is about the country and not just the Labour party. It is in the interplay of the values, instincts and ideas articulated by Kendall and her supporters in her campaign, and in Cooper’s speech, that Labour will ever return to government and improve the country. That is why I shall be casting my first and second preferences for them this week. The choice is not reform or radicalism. It is reform or Conservatism.
• David Miliband writes here in a personal capacity