Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation: Ed Miliband’s Bright Start – Apologies for Iraq and for Losing Touch with the Electorate

28.9.10

Time will tell if Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband, is a genuine force for change, but I was impressed during his campaign that he so clearly recognized that the Labour Party had failed and that criticizing the electorate was both insulting and counter-productive. In an interview with the Guardian in August, for example, he stated, “if you say, when you lose an election, the show was great but the audience was poor, you’re going to keep losing elections.”

That point of view was not the only thing in the interview that interested me. The younger Miliband also had policies that struck me as sensible and fair enough to ensure that he would never be elected by his own party — some perspectives on economics that, though by no means radical, at least involved the notion of fairness, and, of course, his opposition to the Iraq war:

He is campaigning for a “living wage” of £7.60 an hour and would look at making the 50% top tax rate and the tax on bankers’ bonuses permanent, but stresses: “I do not want a return to penal rates of taxation.” He proposes a high-pay commission to scrutinise “corporate governance — the cosy cartels which award each other high pay”, but also wants Labour to be the “party of small business and the self-employed” by looking at “the way the banking system works”. On the Iraq war, some of his rivals have disputed his claim to have been opposed from the outset, but a friend of his confirms to me categorically that this was his position in 2003.

In his first speech as the new Labour leader, at the party conference today, Ed Miliband acknowledged that the Iraq war was wrong, and laid out a vision of the future that also involved confronting the mistakes of the Blair and Brown governments. Despite the “new generation” tag (what is that? New New Labour?), I thought it was fresh — and made Cameron and Clegg look stale — but it was only a speech, and we’ve seen from America how fine speeches are not necessarily backed up by the necessary actions. Even so, I’m posting below some of the sections I liked the most (and in some cases the least), along with some relevant commentary. The full text is here.

On Labour’s failures

[L]et us resolve today that this will be a one-term government. That is the purpose of my leadership of this party. But to achieve that we must go on our own journey. And that is why the most important word in politics for us is humility. We need to learn some painful truths about where we went wrong and how we lost touch. We must not blame the electorate for ending up with a government we don’t like, we should blame ourselves. We have to understand why people felt they couldn’t support us. We have to show we understand the problems people face today. This will require strong leadership. It won’t always be easy. You might not always like what I have to say. But you’ve elected me leader and lead I will.

But our journey must also understand where it went wrong. I tell you, I believe that Britain is fairer and stronger than it was 13 years ago. But we have to ask, how did a party with such a record lose five million votes between 1997 and 2010? It didn’t happen by accident. The hard truth for all of us in this hall is that a party that started out taking on old thinking became the prisoner of its own certainties. The world was changing all around us — from global finance to immigration to terrorism — New Labour, a political force founded on its ability to adapt and change lost its ability to do so. The reason was that we too often bought old, established ways of thinking and over time we just looked more and more like a new establishment.

Let me say to the country: You saw the worst financial crisis in a generation, and I understand your anger that Labour hadn’t changed the old ways in the City of deregulation. You wanted your concerns about the impact of immigration on communities to be heard, and I understand your frustration that we didn’t seem to be on your side. And when you wanted to make it possible for your kids to get on in life, I understand why you felt that we were stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt, including tuition fees. You saw jobs disappear and economic security undermined. I understand your anger at a Labour government that claimed it could end boom and bust. And I understand also that the promise of new politics of 1997 came to look incredibly hollow after the scandal of MPs’ expenses. And we came to look like a new establishment in the company we kept, the style of our politics and our remoteness from people. I stand before you, clear in my task: to once again make Labour a force that takes on established thinking, doesn’t succumb to it, speaks for the majority and shapes the centre ground of politics. And I tell you this: if we are not this party, nobody will be.

My verdict: I’m not a Labour Party member, so it won’t keep me awake at night if the party fails to change, but this is the kind of honesty about failure and freshness of approach that ought to win Ed Miliband new supporters, especially if he keeps all the old New Labour dinosaurs out of his shadow cabinet. They have no idea how many of their natural supporters came to despise their often merciless combination of Thatcherism and Stalinism.

On the deficit

I am serious about reducing our deficit. But I am also serious about doing it in a way that learns the basic lessons of economics, fairness and history. Economics teaches us that at a time of recession governments run up deficits. We were too exposed to financial services as an economy so the impact of the crash on the public finances was deeper on us than on others. We should take responsibility for not building a more resilient economy. But what we should not do as a country is make a bad situation worse by embarking on deficit reduction at a pace and in a way that endangers our recovery. The starting point for a responsible plan is to halve the deficit over four years, but growth is our priority and we must remain vigilant against a downturn.

You see, it’s obvious really: when you cancel thousands of new school buildings at a stroke, it isn’t just bad for our kids, it’s bad for construction companies at a time when their order books are empty. It’s not responsible, it’s irresponsible. When you deprive Sheffield Forgemasters of a loan, a loan from which government would be paid back, you deprive Britain of the ability to lead the world in new technology. It’s not responsible, it’s irresponsible. And we should say so. And when you reduce your economic policy simply to deficit reduction alone, you leave Britain without a plan for growth, which is what this government has done. No plan for growth means no credible plan for deficit reduction.

My verdict: Some sound examples of how the coalition’s policies don’t add up, and are driven by ideology rather than common sense. Savagely axe the public sector, Mr. Osborne, and you also savagely axe all the private sector jobs that depend on it. Doh!

On immigration

[T]his new generation recognises that we did not do enough to address concerns about globalisation, including migration. All of us heard it on the doorsteps about immigration. Like the man I met in my constituency who told me he had seen his mates’ wages driven down by the consequences of migration. If we don’t understand why he would feel angry — and it wasn’t about prejudice — then we are failing to serve those who we are in politics to represent. I am the son of immigrants. I believe that Britain has benefited economically, culturally, socially from those who came to this country. I don’t believe either that we can turn back the clock on free movement of labour in Europe. But we should never have pretended it would not have consequences. Consequences we should have dealt with. We have to challenge the old thinking that flexible labour markets are always the answer. Employers should not be allowed to exploit migrant labour in order to undercut wages. And if we have free movement of labour across Europe we need proper labour standards in our economy, including real protection for agency workers. And, as every democratic country recognises, it is vital that workers have a voice that speaks for them.

My verdict: Well, OK, everyone, it seems, has to play the immigration card, and at least this is moderate. But the only part I can thoroughly endorse is Miliband’s directive to blame employers, rather than immigrants, for driving down wages: “Employers should not be allowed to exploit migrant labour in order to undercut wages.” Only racists and xenophobes — and there have been too many of them — would get away with suggesting that employers had to personally have their arms twisted by immigrants desperate to be paid as little as possible, in order to take jobs away from “British” workers.

On greed

This new generation demands responsibility from business too. During this campaign, I have met some extraordinary people doing amazing service for our country. I remember a care worker I met in Durham. She worked hard and with dedication, looking after our mums, dads and grandparents when they couldn’t look after themselves anymore. She is doing one of the most important jobs in our society, and if it was my mum or dad, I would want anyone who cared for them to be paid a decent wage. But she was barely paid the minimum wage — and barely a few pence extra for higher skills. She told me that she thought a fair wage would be £7 an hour because, after all, she would get that for stacking shelves at the local supermarket. I believe in responsibility in every part of our society. That’s why I believe in not just a minimum wage but the foundation of our economy in the future must be a living wage too.

And we need responsibility at the top of society too. The gap between rich and poor does matter. It doesn’t just harm the poor; it harms us all. What does it say about the values of our society, what have we become, that a banker can earn in a day what the care worker earns in a year? It’s wrong, conference. I say: responsibility in this country shouldn’t just be about what you can get away with. And that applies to every chief executive of every major company in this country.

My verdict: Please, please follow up on this. The greed of the abominably rich is a poison, and without some important intervention the parasites will bleed us dry again. This ought to be a rallying cry for those opposed to the scythe wielded by George Osborne, which the coalition government is using to enforce its ideology. As I have stated since the Tories announced their intentions (and the Lib Dems meekly followed), “We needed a skilled surgeon, but what we got instead was an executioner.”

On community

We must never again give the impression that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We must be on the side of communities who want to save their local post office, not be the people trying to close it. We must be on the side of people trying to protect their high street from looking like every other high street, not the people who say that’s just the forces of progress. And we must be on the side of those who are dismayed by the undermining of the local pub with cut-price alcohol from supermarkets. We must shed old thinking and stand up for those who believe there is more to life than the bottom line. We stand for these things not because we are social conservatives but because we believe in community, belonging and solidarity. And I tell you this: the good life is about the things we do in our community and the time we spend with family. I feel this so deeply since the birth of my son sixteen months ago.

My verdict: From the heart, although it will take more than fine words to secure genuine investment in local communities, and to reduce the burden of rents, taxation and rates, so that small businesses can survive. I am impressed, however, by his interest in small businesses and the self-employed, as I believe that one of the strengths of Western nations is creativity, and Ed Miliband actually seems to have recognized that we would do well to foster both small businesses and the self-employed — artists, craftspeople, authors, bloggers, musicians, filmmakers, people running independent shops and online businesses, community activists and organizers … The list could go on and on.

On civil liberties

My generation recognises too that government can itself become a vested interest when it comes to civil liberties. I believe in a society where individual freedom and liberty matter and should never be given away lightly. The first job of government is the protection of its citizens. As prime minister I would never forget that. And that means working with all the legitimate means at our disposal to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks. But we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years. We should always take the greatest care in protecting them. And too often we seemed casual about them. Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days — nearly three months in prison — without charging them with a crime. Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended. They just undermined the good things we did like CCTV and DNA testing. Protecting the public involves protecting all their freedoms. I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty. I want our party to reclaim that tradition.

My verdict: That reference to “working with all the legitimate means at our disposal to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks” must be pre-printed on the speech of every political leader, as it turns up with such monotonous regularity. In August, Ed Miliband spoke about how he supported “certain coalition policies — on ID cards, prison policy, and an inquiry into British collusion in the torture of terrorist suspects.” ID cards, of course, were already being swept away by the coalition government, and on prison sentences, Miliband is right to support Ken Clarke’s aim of less sentencing (although whether that will lead to more community service instead of prison sentences is another question). I also hope that he maintains his enthusiasm for the inquiry into British complicity in torture announced by David Cameron In July (even though his brother is implicated in the cover-up).

In his speech, 90 days’ pre-charge detention is another relatively soft target (as the coalition has announced an end to the 28 days’ pre-charge detention that the Labour government secured in 2006), and what will be more revealing will be his approach to the use of control orders and secret evidence in the cases of alleged terror suspects, as well as the apparently permanent intention of contravening the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention Against Torture by deporting foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, instead of putting them on trial here.

As for CCTV and DNA testing, I think he’s wrong on both counts. The use of DNA is fraught with problems, and has also embroiled the UK in human rights issues regarding the police’s massive and illegal DNA database, and CCTV is nothing more than an incredibly poor substitute for real policing, which, though it may deter some crime, is incapable of providing any necessary response to crimes that do take place. In addition, it has undermined public and private spaces as part of an almost all-encompassing surveillance state, which, in an insidious manner, undermines the notion that we are born free, and that we are innocent until proven guilty. In the surveillance state, we are all suspects.

On Afghanistan

[W]e are the generation that recognises that we belong to a global community: we can’t insulate ourselves from the world’s problems. For that reason, right now this country has troops engaged in Afghanistan. They represent the very best of our country. They and their families are making enormous sacrifices on our behalf and we should today acknowledge their service and their sacrifice. Our troops are there to stabilise the country and enable a political settlement to be reached, as David said yesterday, so that Afghanistan can be stable and we can be safe. I will work in a bi-partisan way with the government to both support our mission and ensure Afghanistan is not a war without end.

My verdict: Incredibly disappointing. We should get out now, Ed, and if you don’t say so you’ll soon be spouting the same nonsense as every other party leader about keeping al-Qaeda off the streets of Britain. Get out! This lost war — in which we lost hearts and minds a long, long time ago — is unwinnable, and we should stop pretending that Afghans in Afghanistan are the enemy, or that the lost lives of our military personnel were not in vain.

On Iraq

But just as I support the mission in Afghanistan as a necessary response to terrorism, I’ve got to be honest with you about the lessons of Iraq. Iraq was an issue that divided our party and our country. Many sincerely believed that the world faced a real threat. I criticise nobody faced with making the toughest of decisions and I honour our troops who fought and died there. But I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that. Wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not build sufficient alliances and because we undermined the United Nations. America has drawn a line under Iraq and so must we. Our alliance with America is incredibly important to us but we must always remember that our values must shape the alliances that we form and any military action that we take.

My verdict: Well, there you have it: “I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that. Wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not build sufficient alliances and because we undermined the United Nations.” No mention of the words “illegal” or “war criminals,” of course, but Jack Straw looked pretty uncomfortable when Ed Miliband spoke these words. I do, of course, take exception to the suggestion that America has “drawn a line under Iraq,” when 50,000 personnel remain in the country, and the occupation is clearly not over, but I congratulate Labour’s new leader for making his position clear.

On Israel and Palestine

There can be no solution to the conflicts of the Middle East without international support, providing pressure where it is needed, and pressure where it is right to do so. And let me say this, as Israel ends the moratorium on settlement building, I will always defend the right of Israel to exist in peace and security. But Israel must accept and recognise in its actions the Palestinian right to statehood. That is why the attack on the Gaza flotilla was so wrong. And that is why the Gaza blockade must be lifted and we must strain every sinew to work to make that happen. The government must step up and work with our partners in Europe and around the world to help bring a just and lasting peace to the Middle East.

My verdict: These words need repeating back at Ed Miliband if he ever wavers: “Israel must accept and recognise in its actions the Palestinian right to statehood. That is why the attack on the Gaza flotilla was so wrong. And that is why the Gaza blockade must be lifted and we must strain every sinew to work to make that happen.” Again, no mention of the words “illegal” and “war criminals,” but an important stand.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Daniel Vazquez Paluch wrote:

    Excellent article, but I think you are expecting too much from Ed. As a politician that is already being accused of being too leftist, he can’t afford to say anything too interesting about anti-terrorism or Afghanistan. Otherwise, along with the accusations of his being too leftist, he will be accused of encouraging the terrorists, of not caring about “our boys” in Afghanistan etc…

    At the end of the day, he has to pick his battles, and he has chosen to fight on the issue of social justice in Britain. Considering the opposition he will encounter from the status quo, I think that in itself is very brave –maybe even a bit suicidal.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Digger Dave wrote:

    I am reminded of the Foot years! I dont think Milliband will gain much more than rebuilding the labour party into something that sticks by its history and its promises — lots more fundraising fetes — but will be unelectable.
    He will be fighting the shadows of the Jewish thing (believe me) and his father, no matter where he goes.
    He isn’t on my list of MPs that responded to letters concerning Woolworths, so I don’t think he he really up to taking on the bankers.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Daniel and Dave. I had very conflicting opinions when I was writing it. Primarily, I wanted to note that I was happy with the points at which he distanced himself from New Labour, but when I came to analyze what he said I felt I couldn’t gloss over the disappointments, even though a certain amount of business as usual pragmatism was to be expected on Afghanistan and terrorism, as you noted, Daniel.

  4. davebones says...

    His comments about the unfairness of bankers being paid in a day what care workers earn in a year made me laugh a lot. Its actually quite insulting him saying things like that if he isn’t going to back it with clear policy, which he isn’t.

  5. Miliband admits Blair’s Iraq war was wrong | Dear Kitty. Some blog says...

    [...] Extensive comments on Miliband’s speech here. [...]

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