“Reassurance Labour” and post-Blair social democracy

Globally, the centre-left is enduring a period of public weariness and dissatisfaction. In Australia, a relatively unpopular government battles on against a red-blooded Opposition Leader, with the spectre of a leadership context lingering unerringly in the background. Between Kevin and Tony, there’s not much free air for Julia to articulate what she is about and why she deserves more time. In the United States, the ramshackle cavalcade of the Republican presidential primaries rolls on. As we collectively chortle at the successive victories of the likes of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, dividing the centre-right, we also quietly question whether Barack Obama will be able to ride home this November on the same wave of good will and anti-Bush sentiment that served to swell his support in 2008. Across Europe, the political cartography doesn’t lie: in 23 of the 27 EU nations (24 if you include the six party (!) coalition in Belgium), the centre-left does not control the government.

A couple of weeks ago, David Miliband, former foreign minister and the exiled elder brother of Labour Opposition Leader Ed, contributed a rambling “vision” piece on social democracy to the New Statesman. It’s the kind of piece that was self-evidently designed to be high-minded without being too controversial, to try and add something to the debate without undermining his brother, or being so practical as to indulge in any policy specifics. It would have floated by altogether, unremarked and soap bubble-like, if Miliband had not taken the opportunity to take a heavily padded pot-shot at former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley and his recent piece [PDF] with Kevin Hickson for The Political Quarterly:

He is convinced that there exists an obvious instrument for putting social democracy into practice – the central national state, whose strength has been underestimated, he argues, in a rush of market fundamentalism on both left and right. His fundamental point is this: that Labour in the past 20 years has been scared off the most potent vehicle for the expression of its values, and in the process has come to be seen as ineffective as well as unprincipled.

For some, this will be seductive. It is what I shall call Reassurance Labour. Reassurance about our purpose, our relevance, our position, even our morals. Reassurance Labour feels good. But feeling good is not the same as doing good – and it gets in the way when it stops us rethinking our ideas to meet the challenges of the time. And now is a time for restless rethinking, not reassurance.

“Reassurance Labour”, in short, is just the latest rhetorical salvo in the ongoing war between the hardminded, working-class socialists of the 1970’s and early 1980’s and the so-called “Third Way” Blairism of more recent years. Historically, the centre-left has sought to make its values manifest through the wilful manipulation of the gears and levers of the state, with the national government perceived as being the preeminent mechanism through which this can be achieved. Since then, the world has changed, but how much has it really changed? Miliband clearly feels that any renewed embrace of this top-down approach would be misguided, despite the strong emotional connection that most people on the left have with the proactive welfare states of yesteryear.

The Australian political scene seems to be operating in a slightly different world to the one where this debate is blundering on, in part perhaps because Labor is currently focused less on any grand thematic vision for the future than keeping its head above water in the run up to the next election. Government – particularly when you’re struggling in the polls – will do that to you. Looking back over the last few years, however, one gets the sense that the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have dipped quite a bit into “Reassurance Labour” economics, pursuing interventionist tax policies on climate change and mining, and betting the farm on the success of the National Broadband Network project. In the current climate of fiscal uncertainty, after all, nothing says political conviction quite like pumping tens of billions of dollars of public money into a nationwide infrastructure project. It’s a bold policy, and it is quite difficult to imagine a UK government of either political stripe dancing down a similar path in the current climate.

I am unsure about whether this implies the Australian bodypolitik is somewhere ahead or somewhere behind the debate going on in the UK, but one thing is certain: nobody can in practical terms define themselves as being simply “pro-state” or “pro-market” anymore. Governments are increasingly being pushed towards the middle ground by market entities and forces with more unhinged pulling power than themselves, and indeed by pockets of the impotent shouty filling the space vacated by mass political parties and organised participatory democracy.

Despite his departure from the scene, we are all still living in what we might one day call the Blair era – named not for any whizz-bang political dynamic dreamt up by Tony Blair and crew, mind, but the prickly, atomised, tabloid-oriented political environment that created and crowned him.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

On brotherhood and the Milibands

The psychology of brotherhood can be challenging at times; as someone with four brothers (and one stepbrother), I feel not so much qualified but overqualified to talk about it! Admittedly in my case the relationships are a bit less stultifying than the norm; the five of us have three different sets of parents in all, so the chain has always been fixed with strings and sealing wax. What I presume to be the usual fierce clash of love, pride, play and the joy of commonality is there, but it can be compartmentalised. It doesn’t just come out in a gush when we are all together – in part because we are never all together – and this has probably never been more the case than it is today. The youngest is about to turn 18 and finish school, ending an era, the eldest is in London typing this and watching Antiques Roadshow, and the middle brother has this year moved to Nova Scotia and married his online girlfriend. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “brothers” have fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole.

As at least some will be aware, over here in the United Kingdom we have just seen a fairly magnificent public feud play out between brothers, with David Miliband and Ed Miliband both contesting the leadership of the parliamentary Labour Party. The psychology of the whole thing has been fascinating. David Miliband is four years the elder (incidentally like myself and my full brother), and is closely associated with the “New Labour” years under Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown. He raised his profile whilst serving as Foreign Secretary under Brown, and like Blair was in his prime, he is a consummate politician. Setting aside policy for just a moment, there can be little doubt from anyone that the elder Miliband would be a credible mouthpiece for Labour and one that could effectively challenge the credibility of the Cameron/Clegg alliance of convenience.

Interestingly, as revealed at Labour’s annual conference on Saturday 25th September, Labour collectively chose Ed to lead, the younger brother. Unlike in Australia, in the United Kingdom the leadership of the Labour Party is decided by not only parliamentary members but also rank and file members of the party and affiliated union members. Somewhat inconveniently, Ed Miliband charged to the leadership only on the back of preferences (his elder brother scored more votes in the first three of the four preferential run-offs), and indeed apparently on the back of votes from affiliated union members. There is a whiff of illegitimacy about his victory, underscored by the fact that he may have dealt a mortal blow to his talented older brother’s political career.

“Red” Ed Miliband (as the News Limited papers have already labelled him) stands ready to give Labour a more progressive voice on a number of issues – a promising development for a party which has been dragged slowly but steadily towards the Tories’ turf over the course of the last decade. On the other hand, there are still some clear question-marks hovering over his leadership credentials. Ed does not have a particularly big public profile, like his brother. Unlike his brother, he occasionally comes across as a rabbit caught in a game hunter’s headlights during media slots. Miliband the elder has already stated his intention to move to the back bench for the time being, instead of rejoining the Shadow Cabinet, leaving Ed in the spotlight.

How Ed will cope in the leadership role is one thing; how the two brothers cope with these somewhat difficult circumstances in their personal lives is another. I am sure David is thrilled for Ed, but gutted for himself, and Ed vice-versa. These two feelings must be so very hard to reconcile for both of them.

Gordon Brown, too little, too late

Quite an interesting “what-if” story in the Guardian today – what if Gordon Brown had decided to fall on his sword at the start of the election campaign in early April, instead of after he lost the election and the removalist vans were queued up outside Number 10?

As Patrick Wintour reports, it mightn’t have been all that far away from becoming reality:

Gordon Brown drafted a speech on the eve of the general election campaign setting out plans to stand down within a year of the poll, but was persuaded by senior ministers not to go ahead.

At a meeting on the eve of the election, his proposal to announce his plan to stand down was supported by David Muir, his director of political strategy and chief polling adviser. But Ed Balls, Lord Mandelson and Douglas Alexander argued against the idea. One adviser, present at the meeting where Brown’s plan was discussed, told the Guardian: “Gordon was under no illusions about his popularity, or the degree to which he was a barrier to Labour’s re-election.”

I think Balls, Mandelson and Alexander were right – but what would have happened if the Prime Minister had done the sensible thing and decided to make way for David Miliband in April 2009? It is difficult to believe that we would now have a Tory/Lib Dem Coalition Government in power, that is for certain. With a Labour pledge to reform Britain’s electoral system and clean up politics on the table and Miliband at the helm, with a year to build his stature, things could have been so much different.

Now he has a long road ahead.

Cutting him loose

There’s quite a lot ado about parliamentary expenses at the moment, a little bit locally, but to paraphrase the Prime Minister, there’s a whole shitstorm going on in the United Kingdom right now. Even as Kevin Rudd clings gingerly to repeat-offender Joel Fitzgibbon like one does with a somewhat disliked cousin, it is beginning to look as though the ever-escalating UK expenses scandal might be the straw that finally breaks the back of the Brown Labour Government.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is reportedly set to resign from Cabinet, and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears resigned in a shock announcement today. Now backbenchers are threatening to push a petition letter throughout the partyroom calling for Gordon Brown to abdicate, and the Guardian has taken the extraordinary step of calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation in an editorial:

All must agree that the die is cast and a hard judgment made. Otherwise progressive politics will be dragged down at a general election in May 2010 that could lead to a much bigger defeat than Labour suffered in 1979. That might bring a chance for other parties to take it forward, as the Liberal Democrats are trying to do in this election. But they are not placed to enter government. Labour has a year left before an election; its current leader would waste it. It is time to cut him loose.

It’s a little unfair that Gordon Brown should be made to pay a price for the current expenses drama, a drama in which every sitting member of parliament has a stake. The Guardian editorial is nevertheless spot on. Gordon Brown has been given a good run, but he and his government remain on an express train to electoral irrelevance at the polls next year unless something drastically, and changes very soon indeed.

Roll on David Miliband as a fresh alternative to Gordon Brown, and a man of more substance than David Cameron.