David Miliband and Labour history
David Miliband who lost out to his brother Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership in 2010 and subsequently departed for a role in New York has given a wide-ranging interview to Murdoch’s Times newspaper.
The Times predictably chose to run it in the wake of Labour’s poll performance in the Copeland and Stoke on Trent Central By-Elections.
Miliband who was MP for South Shields and Foreign Secretary in the 2005-2010 Labour Government is often touted by the right-wing media as a future Labour leader over the water.
Miliband does not actually attack Jeremy Corbyn in the interview confining himself to the more potentially interesting point that he believes a more radical outcome can be achieved in different ways to current Labour policy. He doesn’t make it clear whether this is just a re-tread of New Labour thinking or something else.
It is his comments that Labour is further away from office than at any time in the last 50 years that have particularly been seized upon, primarily by opponents of Jeremy Corbyn.
As with his views on current Labour policy it is not entirely clear what he means.
50 years ago Harold Wilson was Prime Minister in the 1966-70 Labour Government. One could argue that Miliband, who was born in 1965 has in mind the period before Labour was elected in 1964 with a very small majority.
Labour had lost the 1959 General Election which after the debacle of Suez in 1956 and Anthony Eden’s sudden departure as Tory leader it had some hopes of winning. Under the new Tory leader Macmillan, with the economy booming after years of post-war austerity, Labour, to some, appeared out of touch with the beginnings of the ‘consumer society’.
After the 1959 Election, a well-known study of Labour’s support and policies was undertaken and published under the title Must Labour Lose. The conclusions will be familiar enough to anyone active on the left now because they are essentially the same ones that the Labour right still use to attack the left. Namely that talk of public ownership must end and market capitalism embraced.
This was very much in line with the politics of the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell but after his sudden death Harold Wilson took over. Wilson came from the centre-left and with his speech writer and spin doctor, Tony Benn, had a rather different take on matters. Wilson’s perspective on modernisation involved a technocratic future, which the Tories under old Etonian leader Douglas Home were certainly not in tune with.
In the interview Miliband also compares Labour’s position now unfavourably to the 1980s when it was last out of office for an extended period. He correctly notes the changes in Scottish politics but also argues that Labour’s core support is now weaker. In this he is probably right. The Iraq War led to the desertion of many voters and support for both major parties has been in decline for decades. Labour and the Tories took just 67% of the vote between them in 2015. In 1964 the comparable figure was 87.5%
Yet it was also in the 1980s, with the struggles of the miners and printers, that the left re-built itself after the defeat to Thatcher in 1979. As Henry Mayhew’s Victorian London costermonger noted of an earlier period of left-wing defeat, ‘People fancy that when all’s quiet that all’s stagnating. Propagandism is going on for all that. It’s when all’s quiet that the seed’s a-growing. Republicans and Socialists are pressing their doctrines’.
Maybe that’s not David Miliband’s idea of how to re- build the left but it may well be Jeremy Corbyns
A version of this post appeared in the Morning Star on 27th February