August 25, 2010
Poverty of ambition does not quite come any more impoverished than the leadership campaign of David Miliband. He has argued that Labour must not veer to the left, adopting a core vote strategy or attempting to woo disaffected Lib Dems. Instead it must stay in the Blairite centre-ground, and concentrate on tempting back the voters that have deserted Labour in favour of the Conservatives.
In order to achieve this, he says, Labour needs to remain committed to, among other things, public service reform. This, apparently, is the great clarion call of Middle England. Of course, when he says ‘public service reform’, we know what he really means. It is New Labour code for privatisation, ruling out income tax increases, and workfarism.
Yet there is an extremely flawed, and dangerous, logic at the heart of D.Miliband’s strategy here. The logic is that this agenda must be good, because the middle-class support it, and Labour needs middle-class voters to win elections. The electoral math is debatable, and in any case pointless under the current electoral system. Most importantly, his argument is barely more than crude pandering dressed up as intellectualism and courage.
Is the ‘public service reform’ agenda inherently a good idea, or is it only a good idea because of the social stratum that supports it? If D.Miliband thinks it is such a good idea, he should be lecturing his comrades, and his brother, on its soundness as a set of policy prescriptions, rather than psephology. Or does he think the working-class is too thick to ‘get it’? Can you only appeal to the ‘core vote’ with ‘well-meaning’-but-‘naive’ policies?
This, essentially, is D.Miliband’s pitch: “I have worked out what the right thing to do is. Traditional Labour voters haven’t worked this out yet, but they’ll probably vote for us anyway. Middle England agrees with me, not because of principle, but because they have economic interests which broadly align with the outcomes my policy agenda will produce. You must understand, comrades, that I don’t instinctively favour the interests of the middle-class, but it just so happens that the exact same policies that they support for selfish reasons are the policies I support for moral reasons. And even more remarkably, the selfishness of the middle-class voters could get us re-elected!”
It is as implausible as it is disheartening. David Miliband would make a good Prime Minister. I have no quarrel with him as a politician, a wonk, a leader. But his strategy stinks, and he’s letting it get in the way of proper work on policy. There’s no point getting into Blair-bashing all over again, but he needs to understand that the New Labour playbook is defunct. If I were advising him, I’d tell him to just go out there and be himself. Tell us what he really believes: I doubt there’s anything really gruesome. And if some journalist or strategist asks you to say something about left vs right, Blair vs Brown, ‘core vote’ vs centre-ground, tell them to grow up.