Fabian Society Labour party leadership hustings

In the copy of progress magazine that I stole from the Fabians’ leadership hustings tonight, Richard Angell interviews David Miliband about his candidacy for the Labour leadership.

In it, there is a quote that just about sums up his campaign:

In his first weekend as leadership contender, the former aide to Tony Blair appears to be distancing himself from New Labour with his call for the party to become ‘Next Labour’.

Miliband the elder is the least comfortable candidate with really identifying where the New Labour project, to which he is linked – despite what the above says – failed. He is also the least comfortable candidate when explaining where he wants to see the party go to, in order to change its image from, as Andy Burnham pointed out during the debate, “pro-big business without being pro-ordinary people”.

This comes through in the very New Labour quote above; meaningless symbolism and clap in the words “Next Labour” – it is hard to even make sense of what this could mean. Unlike what the interviewer says, it reveals no distancing whatsoever.

David Miliband went further in his soundbite babblery hatchet job with his opening statement. Among other vague notions he told the audience of Fabians:

the question for us is how we turn the poetry of values into the prose of real change in people’s lives

It didn’t get much better for him, stumbling over safe and habitual epithets, nervous smiles and uncomfortable hand gestures towards Dianne Abbott to his left (!).

A well-known blogger I got talking to recently, toying with whether to have Dave Miliband as his first choice candidate when the party comes to vote, told me that all candidates are trying to weave leftist tenets into their gamut, but nobody is reaching to the right. After wiping up the spillages I had made after hearing that, I realised that nobody else in the party but David Miliband was someone able to do both; someone to remind the party of its regretful right wing flirting past, and one who says through gritted teeth things we on the left vaguely want to hear, but see straight through it when uttered from his mouth. He reminded the audience tonight of how right I am (even if I do say so myself).

After answers to phantom questions about concerns to family life for MPs, agreement across the board about the 10p tax, Burnham’s reception of slow hand clapping for his uncommitted and nervous comments on immigration and the war in Iraq, and boring questions on women MPs and voting systems (boring, only because we already know the answer in advance; for more women; AV system) – not to mention Ed Balls’ mistimed jokes, met with flapping hands from Ellie Gellard in the front row – audience members with a little more blood lust were wondering where those questions aimed to stump our candidates were going to come from.

The best we got was a question from the audience on what measure the candidates wish they could delete from Labour’s past, which worryingly turned out to be the question all candidates had some of their finest moments with (with the exception of, again, David Miliband, who was clearly keen on being the voice of the past, New Labour legacy intact).

It was Andy Burnham, and not Dianne Abbott, who played the divider tonight, to the surprise of many people I have spoken to. He was the one laying himself open and making friends and enemies along the way, whether on the clergy in the Lords (which he opposes, but will explain his reasons in confession for, by his own jesty admission), to selection in schools to his own class and upbringing in Manchester.

Abbott was playing it far more pluralistic than many had anticipated, being personable and less antagonistic than many would hope (leaving that space for Burham).

Ed Balls was barely clear all evening, most comfortable when he was talking absolute jibberish and complaining about criticism he has had to endure as Minister. His attempts to re-write his past support for the war in Iraq, which he now admits was a mistake, were badly executed when he told the audience: “we should say sorry and move on” – if only life were so easy. These are not the words of a man in touch.

This leaves me to talk about the candidate who won the debate hands down tonight. Ed Miliband wanted to drive home the message that he was a “values driven” candidate, calling for Lords reform, a 50% female shadow cabinet, a need to govern markets by democracy, a look at top pay in the private sector, a high pay commission, a living wage, and the need to criticise capitalism from a democratic perspective.

Emma Burnell asked the pivtal question at the end of the night: “are you a Socialist – and what does the word mean to you?” David Miliband of course skirted round the issue, saying he was happy to accept what is written on the back of Labour membership cards (democratic socialist), while the others used the word to explain why they opposed social barriers. Ed Miliband used the most colourful language when he noted that:

Being a socialist for me is about being willing to criticise capitalism – and saying capitalism produces many injustices, which politics must tackle. It is not about abolishing capitalism but it is about changing it.

Balls noted having no truck with barriers, Burnham quoted Billy Bragg and Abbott spoke about the marginalisation of the minority working class.

These events are about Labour members and supporters working out who comes off best. Small-scale differences aside, the candidate scores points by saying the things you want to hear, appearing to mean it, and manoeuvering better on the spot than others. For me, Ed Miliband did this the best, not necessarily because I feel his politics are closer to mine than that of any other candidate, nor because I desire for him to be the next leader of the Labour party, but because he spoke clearly and elegantly about important matters, rallied with passion about more than just things we might want to hear him say, and did this far better than any of his colleagues.


David Miliband and the Mel Gibson effect

David Miliband, Blairite, will be targeting ‘immoral’ city excesses.

There’s a few images come to mind when we think of what it means to be a Blairite; that it is a portion of New Labourism that promoted, and was happy to see, the super rich.

That it excused immaturity, ill-thought and unnecessary risk in the city so long as UK boom financed the public sector to an extent that we no longer have the privilege of maintaining.

I mostly agree with Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT and the gentle face of trade unionism, when she says that:

The Chancellor has failed to recognise that quangos are not all bad. Some of the organisations whose funding has today been slashed by the Chancellor are better placed than individual schools on their own to achieve the value for money the Government craves.”

This is true, and ought to be a lesson for those who are keen to see services freed from the state; namely that big society is abandonment not freedom, and that some non departmental bodies can have a fuller view of services and finances, that perhaps devolution of power won’t properly achieve.

But this is not to clear the slate entirely. There has been wasteful spending and it is a product of boom, but reform should come from within the government departments themselves, so as to keep a sensible, non-boom, eye on financial matters.

It ought to be remembered that the Total Place programme was realised under Labour’s watch, and though some in the Labour camp have been sceptical, and some Tories have been favourable, it is not an insult to the Labour party as a whole to say that within that camp there were people who were not sensible with finances, and there were people who were themselves consumed by boom.

That is a Blairite to me.

So why is D. Miliband taking on the city now?

Two options: either he’s playing the game. Like his now very anti-war brother and the other Ed in the leadership race, they have realised the game, they’ve read the rules, it’s no surprise they are spinning the nicities.

The second option asks a lot more: perhaps it is what we should call the Mel Gibson effect. Mel Gibson wrote a terrible film called the Passion of the Christ. There was controversy. The Anti-Defamation League put a statement about the film saying:

It must be emphasized that the main storyline presented Jesus as having been relentlessly pursued by an evil cabal of Jews, headed by the high priest Caiaphas, who finally blackmailed a weak-kneed Pilate into putting Jesus to death.

Gibson had uttered anti-Semitic words since the film which did not help counter the negative view (of all but the Pope who said of the film, apparently, “It is as it was”). In 2006 he was stopped for drink-driving where it is reported that he called a female officer ‘sugar tits’ and was said to have hurled ‘religious epithets‘ – notably towards Jews.

Some have decided to say that this burst of Gibson’s is something that lurks beneath, located in his unconscious, linked to his Father as a kind of underbelly of a narrative, waiting dormant to be released, and only able to be when the subject is squiffy to the nines.

Gibson’s Father, Hutton Gibson, is a famous anti-Semite who has ‘been quoted as saying the Second Vatican Council was “a Masonic plot backed by the Jews”.’ Is there the chance that Mel was communicating an urge to fill his Father’s nutty place in the world?

Gibson apologised later by saying he was ashamed of what he did.

Is it that David Miliband is experiencing the same urge, to fill his Father’s place in the world by disavowing his Blairism for a stab at city excess? The chances are no, but worth a thought.

What of David Miliband’s Moral Philosophising?

It might be remembered by some an article written by staunch atheist A.C. Grayling, the philosopher at Birkbeck college, who during the first time a Labour party leadership challenge against Gordon Brown was on the cards in 2008, spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of David Miliband becoming the new PM for his atheist beliefs.

The many reasons, written almost like a list of guidelines, that Grayling figured an atheist PM would be beneficial included scepticism towards publicly funded sectarian faith schools, belief in the disestablishment of the Church of England, a down-to-earth approach that dissuades the belief that paradise will be better for the poor, and the likelihood that the “Atheist leaders will not be tempted to think they are the messenger”.

Of course the 345 comments made below the article were mostly covered by criticisms of this very flawed and idealistic approach. And rightly so, for it would not be unheard of that a person of faith can feel uncomfortable with some of the peculiarities of faith schools or the notion of paradise used to justify poverty, nor is it inconceivable that a person of faith can support secularism and not think they are the messenger.

On the flipside, it is also not a given that an atheist be immune from the criticisms that are usually reserved for the religious. For example, Grayling states rather specifically;

Atheist leaders are not going to think they are getting messages from Beyond telling them to go to war. They will not cloak themselves in supernaturalistic justifications, as Blair came perilously close to doing when interviewed about the decision to invade Iraq.

Now of course Miliband is a supporter of both wars the UK is currently engaged in, and whether we like him or not Tony Blair did not use anywhere near the same level of spiel as Bush for the war, in fact in any public address regarding Iraq Blair seemed to me rather more apologetic, and less hubristic than his US counterpart (even if his private convictions tell a different story).

But recently Miliband went one further in actively (though not consciously) proving Grayling’s opinions wrong that a leading atheist politician is any better than one who believes: by justifying the use of terror in certain exceptional cases. Contrary to the opinion that Miliband is acting on a series of rational atheistic principles, structured by the enlightenment period, as no doubt Grayling assumes, his sentiment is actually the heir to some very specific Christian codes, namely that of Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catholic scholar and father of Thomistic theology, who first posited the doctrine of double effect, or DDE, which provide specific guidelines for determining when it is morally permissible to perform an action in pursuit of a good end in full knowledge that the action will also bring about bad results.

The formulation of the doctrine is based on four principles and are as follows, firstly that the action taken is entirely a good action, secondly that the bad result is not at all intended, thirdly that the good result is not in direct consequence to the bad effect (such as is dissuaded by Paul in the Romans 3:8 “Do evil that good may result”) and then lastly that the good result be proportionate to the bad result.

So when Miliband, in reply to Matthew Paris on whether violence is justified, said

I think I’m right in saying that one of the ways in which the ANC tried to square the circle between being a movement of political change and a movement which used violence, was to target installations rather than people … there are circumstances in which it is justifiable, and yes, there are circumstances in which it is effective – but it is never effective on its own.

he was actually using arguments that conflict with the most developed philosophy to have emerged out of the enlightenment period – utilitarianism – which looks at the overall manifestation of happiness, rather than what good can come out of the ends.

Overall, what Miliband’s recent statement means is that though a person might be an atheist, it doesn’t necessarily mean to say that they are any less predisposed to the tenets of the Christian legacy, so perhaps this isn’t a good reason to support Miliband as leader after all (It is also an interesting point of note here that Grayling in his article was using Blair, who had recently converted to Roman Catholicism, in parallel with Miliband. In a philosophical paradox, can Miliband’s words imply that in a way he is just as Roman Catholic in his actions as Blair is, although perhaps not consciously acknowledged?).

Recently Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, warned those on the left wing of what he called the “liberal drift” in the financial sector, encouraged by Ramsay MacDonald and Tony Blair who were both, as Cruddas tells us, “fatally attracted to wealth and power.” But the liberal drift does not stop here. Utilitarianism as an ethical model has dominated British left wing politics to the point that liberalism and socialism in Britain have almost become synonymous (to whom does Nick Cohen refer to as the liberal-left in his book What’s Left?? Everyone on the left, by his own admission). So why, I ask, is it disturbing that a politician should start observing moral philosophy, as it has so disturbed Chekov? I don’t think it could have arrived at a better time.


This entry is in response to Three Thousand Versts article Miliband’s terror comments were irresponsible as part of the Bloggers Circle experiment

We can act on Conservative vulnerability

On Sunday morning I thought everything would be OK.

I’d started to read the Observer and on the inlay page saw that Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman had told Will Hutton in an interview that the UK economy was the best in Europe, and that not only are we seeing off the last dregs of the financial crisis, but we may well have beaten the city anaylists predicitions.

Well, I thought, aren’t we glad that the rebels bailed out last minute, that Blears apologised for leaving the way she did, that Miliband had a change of heart 9 days previous, and that despite all its talk, Compass effectively did nothing to start a ruck with the right wing of the Labour Party.

For that moment I thought we on the left were wrong, and for that moment it was a good thing we accepted GB in our lives.

That is until today, a most eventful day.

Virtually nobody has supported the decision to hold the Iraq inquiry in secret, from bloggers to the left (Sunder Katwala), to bloggers on the right (plenty to choose from, but I will stick with Iain Dale), from David Cameron and his call for openness, to Richard Norton-Taylor calling it ‘Another Whitehall whitewash‘.

The decision by Brown – though good in itself as Katwala remembers to credit – to hold the inquiry in public is allowing too much space for Cameron to manoeuvre, just like the public spending divide in the party has allowed space for George Osborne to appear on top of things, despite his expenses claims – which news of just disappeared into thin air – and his party’s plans to cut spending on public services anyway.

Of course as it is quite clear, the Tories cannot win on strategy – Osborne only has the Labour Party’s indecision making as ammunition, spending cuts are unpopular – but they can shout us down on competence – and we should not allow it any more (especially given the extension to their lead in the latest ICM poll).

But the – currently disavowed – battle between right and left in the Labour Party, over spending, and party direction – is not the same as the “in-fighting” John Prescott was moaning about at the weekend.

He mentioned;

“[I]magine my surprise when I was walking through Portcullis House in the House of Commons on Thursday and stumbled upon a meeting held by Charles Clarke, John Reid, Alan Milburn and a few others, huddled together in intense discussion.

I went over and offered to be the secretary for their little club. With nervous laughter, my offer was turned down.”

I’m pretty sure it isn’t the same anyway, and if it should happen to be the same, then Prezza is wrong. But I interpreted his remarks as this; currently there exists childish banter between frontbenchers that is only earning them media coverage – say for example, Miliband’s pointless revelation on Sunday – and it is obfuscating any real discussion on party direction, something that all in the party can agree is creating a massive void for the Tories to fill, at a time when their in-fighting is just as striking as ours.

And on that very subject, it should not be seen as unimportant the words uttered by Kenneth Clarke today: “If the Irish referendum endorses the treaty and ratification comes into effect, then our settled policy is quite clear that the treaty will not be reopened.”

This spurred on

“Bill Cash, the Eurosceptic backbench Tory MP, [who] demanded to know if Mr Clarke’s comments were sanctioned by the party leadership.

He said it was essential that Britain held a referendum on Lisbon, irrespective of the Irish vote. He added: “It appears that Kenneth Clarke has reinvented unilaterally Conservative Party policy on the whole of the Lisbon Treaty and European policy.”

This in-fighting has caught the attention of two main bloggers, firstly the Archbishop has said (in third person, of course);

“But Cranmer is puzzled by something further. Mr Clarke said that he decided to re-join the Conservative front bench because the Party is ‘less Eurosceptic than it was’.

When? Under which leader?”

And Bob Piper has said about it;

“It always amazes me how many Conservatives think of the Party as being eurosceptic. They are not. They know the public are though, and therefore, in opposition, they have consistently played the eurosceptic card.”

Overall, the Labour Party with a bit more punch, a bit more direction, and a lot less media curtsying could challenge a presently vulnerable Tory party. And it shouldn’t wait another second to attempt it.

Update: A concrete direction with regard to public services can now achieve two things: firstly it can dampen the blow of, and try to recitfy quickly, the TUC prediction that job losses in the public sector are inevitable. And second it will enable commitment over the Tories; “the party of cuts“.

Will Gordon Brown ruin Labour forever?

The rebels failed to amount to anything at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting; the reshuffle has settled the shifts; Mandy is happy, the Miliband’s are happy; Polly Toynbee is furious; the James Purnell story on Guido Fawkes is probably bollocks; he probably helped keep Brown from drowning; Alan Johnson has not ruined his chances of being leader by looking like he wants it too much, and Brown lives to see another day.

So we rebels who hoped Compass would help direct Brown to the door have to ask ourselves the question; is the question of leadership change big enough to collapse the party (see David Aaronovitch’s intervention) or will the party suffer as a consequence of rebel silence?

In other words, should the rebels bite their lips to save the party, or will this complacency lead to defeat beyond repair.

Nick Cohen offered up some scary details at the weekend, and though rather exaggerated, do outline the very worst case scenrio for the Labour Party if the wrong decision is to be taken. He says;

“The banking crash led to recession, which led to a popular fury at the often minor, but still telling, corruptions of MPs who were fiddling expenses while the financial system boomed and bust. That anger has now concentrated on the shattered Brown administration, whose manifest failings could destroy Labour’s chances of winning another election – maybe forever, if the Liberal Democrats and Greens take over what remains of the centre-left.”

Roy Hattersley reminded us elsewhere that Labour should re-deliver its social democracy promises, just as Europe reminded us that the left’s chance to prosper (during an economic crisis) had failed.

But this is by far not a call for the left to give up, and I back Hattersley’s sentiment. The point remains; is Gordon Brown doing the right thing for the greater good by staying, if the worst that could happen come next election is that Labour slip into fourth place, behind the BNP, forever more?

The consequences of Brown staying on are far greater than an election defeat in 2010, and so the question is on: will the (definitely disavowed gesture of) silence by the rebels be a gesture that returns to haunt them in the future?

Where Miliband is short on Europe

David Miliband, in an article to complement a debate he has taken part in tonight with the Fabian Society, has taken on the Tories and David Cameron over Europe.

The article does present well due finger pointing at Cameron’s decision to engage with, among many others, Latvia’s Fatherland and Freedom Party.

On other issues, Miliband assaults Cameron on “support[ing] overseas development – but denounc[ing] the Lisbon treaty’s shift to majority voting that will make it faster and more efficient.”

He buries his knife by saying what Labour will deliver, where the Tories will dwindle: “The EU needs support and reform through engagement.”

Myself, I agree with the latter – that we need to engage with the EU and introduce our take on it, but the former point made me confused. I’m certainly not coming from Cameron’s camp, but its not denouncing the Lisbon treaty’s shift that gets me, but rather the inkling that Lisbon treaty will not be doing anything to curb the anti-union, pro-social dumping ideology that surrounds it.

Obviously, the engagement element of Miliband’s sentiment seems to work well, to use our MEP’s to send a message of worker’s rights to Europe, but not only do I see no chance of this judging by European election polls, also blindly buying into any “shift” the Lisbon treaty forges is just as boneheaded.

Appearing in tomorrow’s Guardian, along with Miliband’s article, will be a one time Miliband supporter (who did her bit to ruin his chances of becoming Prime Minister by shouting, and might just join another emerging trend for the LibDems at Miliband’s, and Labour’s, expense) Polly Toynbee spelling out her reasons why we shouldn’t listen to David Miliband anymore, and vote for the Liberal Democrats in Europe (although this is not full scale support, as some seem to be confused about).

She suggests that a vote for Lib Dems on issues regarding Europe is a vote for consistency, but is no one on the left worried about a consistent dismissal of those things once the territory of the Labour Party; unions, national industry, free elections and the representation of foreign workers.

Of rumours and reshuffling

Regarding Brown’s comments on Hazel Blears, it was going to be jolly difficult playing down the rumours that there was tactical bitterness between the two; Blears criticising the YouTube performance, Brown responding by highlighting Blears’ unacceptable expenses claims.

Harder still will be playing those rumours down now that Brown has defended two other cabinet ministers James Purnell and Geoff Hoon, whose abuses seem rather identical, according to Toby Helm.

He added: “Were Hoon and Purnell less guilty because they had not slagged Brown off the weekend before the expenses revelations started to emerge (as Blears had done)?”

The argument from Hoon’s people, as the blog entry continues, is that there was no confusion as to which was the first and second home to the authorities, whereas with Blears there had been.

With ongoing uproar surrounding the expenses scandal – which claimed its first Labour Member of Parliament, Wirral South’s Ben Chapman, today – the bar with which we, the public, now judge abuse has been lowered since MP’s left, right and centre have been highlighted (perhaps Polly Toynbee has hit the nail on the head, calling for a system of fewer MP’s, although cutting MP’s in half might have its own set of attached abuses). Consistency – in this case Hoon’s – counts for so much more nowadays.

To Helm’s question What’s the difference between Hazel Blears and James Purnell? the answer seems to be not much by everyday standards, but in our new set of parliamentary rules, Hoon comes up trumps.

Although Hoon, like Blears, is not completely safe from a reshuffling. In fact they are both noted as most vulnerable.

Ed Balls is likely to be shifted, too. And plans for Alan Johnson to take a role as party spokesman will keep leftwingers appeased.

Peter Mandelson has come out in support of David Miliband’s continuation as Foreign Secretary – a long time sought after role for Mandy.

Miliband’s upkeep of US backing has today brokered further loyalty when addressing the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. His tone was apologetic when noting that “the invasion of Iraq, and its aftermath, aroused a sense of bitterness, distrust and resentment. When people hear about Britain, too often they think of these things.”

Gracing his presence in the dialogues with Pakistan, announcements of a new China and the chuminess with the US, Miliband’s job is secured. And the rest of the world is spared our privatisation-fetishist PM (Peter Mandelson, that is).