Excerpt from David Miliband’s lecture on why the European Left is losing elections (LSE 8 March 2011).
The European Left is losing elections on an unprecedented scale because it has lost control of the political agenda to a newly flexible right; 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.
After a decade of extraordinary, unprecedented success in the 1990s, under the banner that in Britain was called New Labour, reformist social democracy seems to have been put in check by so called compassionate conservatism; and the question is whether it is check mate.
The right is seeking to emulate the electoral strategies of the left in the 1990s; and the left in the last decade has not been able to decide whether to disown them or embrace them, when the key is in fact to build on them. So it is losing elections again on a grand scale.
It is certainly true that the centre-left governments of the 1990s were good at helping the poorest benefit from economic expansion, not good enough at figuring out how to spur that expansion. They were good at preaching responsibility for those on welfare, not good enough at demanding responsibility from those at the top of society. They were good at the analysis of an enabling state, but not good enough at bringing it about; good at the rhetoric of public sector reform, not good enough at delineating how both planning and markets are necessary for an effective public sector. And they were good at building electoral machines, not good enough at building movements of social change.
But my strategic view is essentially the opposite. The revisionism that was entailed in the renewal of the left parties in the 1990s was essential for them to become viable. It is not the new doctrines of the 1990s that made these parties unviable; it is that these doctrines staved off unviability, for parties that had become practised at losing elections in the 1970s and 1980s. The good things about progressive politics in the 1990s – a radicalism when it came to doctrine, new thinking about national and international reform, a finely tuned eye and ear for social and technological change, decisive engagement with people’s needs on difficult issues like crime and security, a readiness to pursue social justice in new ways, a strong sense of international responsibility, and a record that did leave the countries they governed fairer but also better prepared for the modern world – are the basis of winning again.
In other words, only a post New Labour brand of European social democracy, building on success, not a pre New Labour stance, can address the weaknesses that were left and exist today.
The routemap to victory is not straightforward. It requires reconnection with disenchanted electorates through new ideas; through new mechanisms for organisation; and through renewed political strategies appropriate to each country.
In other words start with an ethic not a policy. An ethic which informs the most basic questions that people want to see addressed – about work, family, opportunity, responsibility. And then apply that ethic to the great questions of the day.
The challenge is to develop a distinctive centre left vision for European policy. The choice is not just for or against Europe; it must be to think through how social democrats bring our politics to the European level. The perspectives and budgets of the EU on internal as well as foreign policy owe far too much to the 1960s and 1980s. The right’s recipe of fiscal retrenchment offers little. We must forge an opportunthity to be internationalists of a hard headed and serious kind, or our policy solutions will have no traction at all.
A full transcript of this speech can be downloaded here.
|David Miliband is Labour MP for South Shields and was the Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2007 to 2010.
David Miliband’s official website.