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David Miliband: Labour must summon the practical idealism of 1997 to win again

Keir Starmer must banish the obsolete and the utopian, says the former foreign secretary in a speech to mark the 25th anniversary of New Labour’s triumph

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

There is a lot bound up in marking 25 years since the 1997 general election. Pride in having been a small part of a great team that inspired millions of people to vote Labour. Real sadness about the amazing people who we worked with and learned from but have lost since then, among them Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, Donald Dewar, Tessa Jowell and Philip Gould. 

And of course there is immense political frustration. Because we were not just trying to win one election in 1997 but to lay the groundwork for a new dispensation in British politics, where instead of Labour governments being an occasional alternative to Conservative rule, we were in government more often than in opposition. 

We believed that the way to build a progressive country was not to win once and then flame out; it was to make change, show what was possible, then build momentum, renew, and repeat the process. 

Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose, is not the history we wanted to write. When Tony said he didn’t want to be the Labour leader who won three elections, but the first Labour leader to do so, he meant it.

1997, and 2001 and 2005, have gained significance because of what has happened since. In those three elections, Labour found a way to stop losing, but since then has rejected that approach and reverted to well-trodden ways of doing so. By 2019, Labour was as unelectable as it had been in 1935.

In the 1980s, the SDP claimed that the “mould” in British politics was the two party system. But that was a category error. The real mould is that we have a two party system where the Tories win for the vast majority of the time. Labour is strong enough to survive as the alternative to the Tories, but most of the time too weak to win. Perfect for the Tories. Bad for the country. That is the mould we wanted to smash in 1997.

Labour’s long period in opposition after 1979 was the rule, not the exception of our history. We only had nine years of real majority government in our first 100 years. Tony Blair’s insight was to grasp this. It was not, as the debate in the 1980s had it, that the forward march of Labour had been inexplicably “halted”. It was that history was not on our side. There was a structural problem in Labour’s definition and appeal.

Second, the failure of Labourism after 1979, just as after 1951, was a failure of ideas, a failure of project, and not just a failure of organisation or leadership. Labour was stuck, and the country was stuck, because of its inability to be the leader of a broad, progressive, national coalition to take the country forward, as opposed to a sectional part of it, protesting (and arguing with itself) but not governing. Credibility and radicalism were at odds with each other, rather than reinforcing.

Third, the project of “practical idealism”, instead of ideas that were either obsolete or utopian, is the key to understanding New Labour: where it succeeded at the level of ideas in fusing the labour’s class interest with liberal reforms, collective action with individual aspiration, harnessing the centre and the apolitical with the left of politics, it finally achieved electoral dividend for the Labour Party and made change in the country. And when it failed to do so, it lost. This was the real Third Way.

Fourth, when it comes to the future, I don’t believe in ancestor worship. Labour needs renewal, not restoration. No sensible person says Labour needs the policies of 1997. But Labour does need to understand its own history. 

Labour’s losses since 2010 are part of a pattern from which 1997, and 2001 and 2005, were an exception. The reversion to type explains why Keir Starmer has such a hard job. But it also explains why his efforts are so important and why he must succeed. We need to learn from our victories, not blame them for defeats.

Recently, I went back to Tony’s leadership election statement of June 1994. This was one of the first things I worked on. In it he wrote: “To win the trust of the British people, we must do more than just defeat the Conservatives on grounds of competence, integrity and fitness to govern. We must change the tide of ideas.”

The chosen route in 1997 was through ideas as well as electoral strategy: to bring together ideas that were liberal with a small l, essentially the extension of individual freedom in a market economy, with ideas that were distinctively social democratic, in essence the advance of social justice through collective action, and then forge them into a distinctive package.

This project was a political, electoral effort, born of successive electoral defeats in which Labour’s policy as well as its personality alienated millions of voters. But it was a political effort that gained strength because it was rooted in seminar rooms debating ideas as well as focus groups discussing slogans. The aim was to end Conservative political domination, but it was also to break the philosophy of shrink the state, run down the NHS, deregulate the market, blame the poor for their poverty, blame European foreigners for that which was not the fault of the poor, that were hallmarks of the Tory years. 

We did not seek to continue the Tory trajectory; instead we pledged to change it, to make the UK a more equal society in its opportunities, in its incomes, in its distribution of power. In some of this, we succeeded, a lot; in other parts, a little; and in still others, we failed. 

Remember the context for the 1997 election, and above all remember 1992 – a stunning Labour defeat, and a crushing rejection of a traditional version of social democracy. We lost by 2.5 million votes and our share of the vote (34%) was lower than our share in any general election between 1931 and 1979. 

In fact, it looked to many like Labour could never win. The Nuffield Election study of that year was called “Labour’s Last Chance?”. 

1997 was very different. People now sometimes say we could never have lost. They point to the exhaustion, division, failings and weakness of the Conservative government.  Those descriptors are all accurate.

But I don’t subscribe to the view that Labour was destined to win, and certainly not by a majority of 179. 

In fact I confess that after John Smith’s two party conference speeches, I walked up and down the seafront in Brighton and Blackpool deeply worried that we were failing to understand that in 1992 the electorate had told us, in no uncertain terms, that they wanted a different offer from Labour. 

John was brilliant in exposing Tory failings. But there was a lot of continuity. And that worried me. Because I felt we needed more change.

I joined Tony Blair’s team slightly late, in June 1994, because my dad had died just 9 days after John Smith. I didn’t know Tony well at the time. But I do remember him writing something striking in a typically generous condolence note at the time. He said that although he obviously disagreed with my dad’s Marxism, he had learnt a lot from his diagnosis of the limits of “Labourism”. The last chapter of my dad’s book Parliamentary Socialism is called “The Sickness of Labourism”, and concerns the repeated defeats in the 1950s.

Class and ideology were uneasy bedfellows in Labourism. It was suspicious of ideas, and while it talked about interests, it was unclear how to serve them. As society changed, the ethos of Labourism made the party more comfortable looking back rather than forward, off the pace rather than ahead of the curve. It was part of the mould. 

I saw four factors at play in breaking that mould in the 1990s. They represent the difference between 1992 and 1997. 

They concern 4 Ps: people, party, policy and project. They exist in my mind as four concentric circles, at the centre of which is the idea of “project”, which drove what our people said, how the party was organised, what our policies were. 

The first circle, the outer circle and therefore the most visible, was our people. Tony was a quite remarkable political phenomenon: he did not just identify the limits of Labourism, he transcended them. 

But Tony was not alone. Gordon Brown was a disciplined, unflinching dynamo, with huge political experience. There were many others. It was a team effort.

The second circle was the party.  Its culture, structure, make-up, mentality. I’ve been in the Labour tribe for nearly forty years. It’s got enormous strengths. It is idealistic, determined, gritty, loyal. But its weakness lies in that word: tribe. 

It is prone to Stockholm syndrome, thinking that everyone thinks like us. But they don’t. And in the 1990s, we didn’t just build a big tent, we opened the side flaps, so that all comers could come and contribute. 

The third element was policy. My job was to get us to 1997 with a manifesto that could help us win rather than pave the way to defeat.  

Anyone who lived through the 1992 election should have learnt that policy can cost you an election. When the Tory attack came, it was too late to change our spending plans, and we were nailed on tax.

So my first task was bomb-disposal: get rid of policies that could blow up in an election campaign. Unfunded commitments, half-baked interventions, loose ends that spoke to interest group positioning, not a program for government. 

But Tony thought policy was more important than people realised for winning an election, not just avoiding losing the election. Policy could change perceptions, as with our crime policy; be a guarantee to the electorate, as with our education policy, or our health policy; be a discipline on politicians, as with our policy on tax and spend; and policy could show that we had learned the lessons for which the electorate had sent us back to the classroom after successive defeats, for example in our insistence on “switch spends” to be emblems of the difference between us and the Tories, most famously in abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme to pay for reduction in class sizes,.

I wrote the 1997 manifesto. I remember that we had 176 promises.  The five on the pledge card, plus the means to pay for or implement them, were the most famous. 169 were delivered in the first term. 

But policy without a project is ad hoc, disconnected. It’s a good warning to those who today say Labour needs “more policies”. The project gave coherence to the policy, and policy gave meaning and credibility to the project, and so together they were able to punch through to the electorate. 

It is easy to mock the idea of a project. But the iteration between definition of the project and policy to symbolise it was the anvil on which the ideas of 1997 were hammered out. The “project” was the glue between policy and vision.  

The project was clearly electoral. To change Labour from a losing machine to a winning one. It was driven by politicians seeking to win votes, not philosophers seeking to publish books.  And the idea was simple: since people voted against old Labour, create new Labour.

But the electoral project was only powerful because it was fused with a national project. New Labour’s national project was built on hard diagnosis of the country’s situation. Remember the British economy was growing, quite fast, by the 1997 election. But we had slumped in the world education league. The NHS was losing the confidence of the public and it languished in global health indices. Our political system was ossified. The collapse of community cohesion was evident in every town and city. And we were losing a beef war the government chose to fight with the EU. 

Our diagnosis was that Britain was weak because Britain was divided, and it was divided because neither the political system, economic model nor cultural mores were adequate to the challenges of building either a strong economy or a strong society in the 21st century. So the winning themes of future/modernity and equality/inclusion arose from a clear critique. 

We thought the governing philosophy of “cut the state, let loose the market” was insufficient for a modern economy and damaging for a modern society. But we believed that a simple pendulum swing back to the state, especially an unreformed state, would solve little. 

So we aimed to shape markets through a modern state that empowered rather than squashed civil society and channelled the power of markets. This was how we would seek to extend personal freedom in a market economy and enhance social justice through collective action. We were trying to break out of the limits of Labourism, without losing the ballast it provided.

Out of this mindset came the National Minimum wage and tougher competition policy, the Minimum Pension Guarantee and Child Trust Funds alongside 3500 Sure Start Centres, signing the social charter of the EU and legislating for gay equality, literacy and numeracy hours and massive expansion of higher education alongside reforms to the teaching profession and student loans, independence for the Bank of England and tax credits, ASBOs and early intervention programmes and more police on the beat and the Human Rights Act and the ban on smoking in public places, the windfall tax on privatized utilizes to get young people into work and Scottish devolution and a mayor for London. There was a more active role for the state, but big reform of the state and also more responsibility for civil society.

The electoral project and the national project gained strength because they became fused.  Everything was driven by a need to marry a new position for Labour with a new direction for Britain. And our argument was that the project to change the country could only be delivered by a changed Labour Party.  

You can think of this definition of the political project as asking and answering five questions:

  1. Threat/Opportunity: what is the problem/challenge facing the country?
  2. Villain: why does the problem exist?
  3. Hope: what’s the way to fix it?
  4. Protagonist: why are you the people to fix it?
  5. Proof: how can we trust you? 

In 1997 we said something like the following: the threat is a divided and declining Britain, the villain is an out of date philosophy and politics, the hope is national renewal through a new balance of state, market and community, the protagonist is a changed Labour Party, and the proof was in a set of commitments that defied conventional wisdom on our own side. 

This assessment stands in contrast to a widespread narrative today that we become popular by apeing the Tories. It’s an odd claim given that the Tories were unpopular. But this is what people mean when they talk about “forty years of neoliberalism”. 

I don’t buy that. What we did was choose our ground: investment in public services over nationalisation of utilities, a national minimum wage over repeal of 1980s legislation on ballots before strikes.

We promised to expand and modernise the role of the state, not reduce it. This was especially true in health, where the annual average growth rate in spending went from 4 per cent from 1979 to 1997 to 6% in the Labour years. But it was also true in respect of education, childcare and other public services. Our aim was to make government work not cut it out. We ran the economy quite hot, and put the proceeds into public services and redistributive benefits, like tax credits. 

We sought to regulate markets in the public interest.  The best evidence of our commitment to the social market economy was in the labour market, where we promised and delivered the minimum wage, more rights for workers, especially women workers, and actually for trade unions, who benefited from multiple pieces of legislation. We could have done more to address over-mighty corporate power, but the idea that we thought markets were self-regulating is just wrong. 

We sought to redistribute income and opportunity because the market fails to do that. This was especially the case in respect of pensioner and child poverty. The poorest half of the child population was better off by £4,390 per person per year by 2010, and the poorest half of the pensioner population better off by £1,970 per year. 

We tried to tackle structural poverty, whether defined by geography, through the New Deal for Communities; or defined by class, through the Social Exclusion Strategy; or defined by personal misfortune, through the attack on homelessness. In fact there was an attack on territorial or spatial inequality far greater than anything done by the current government under the slogan of “levelling up”. 

We rejected the view of society as a grouping of autonomous individuals, and combined liberalisation of laws on personal behaviour with strengthened support for and enforcement of the communal interest. It was as important to our political identity that we passed laws against discrimination on grounds of sexuality or race or religion as it was that we passed laws on anti social behavior and employed more police officers and police community support officers to enforce them 

It is important to say that we stood for all these things at European and global level, not just national level. The very serious mistakes over Iraq have obliterated a lot of this record, but they should not obscure the importance of our international agenda for our vision of a renewed Britain.

International engagement was not an add-on. It was part of our diagnosis of Britain’s problem that closing ourselves off from the rest of the world was of a piece with social division at home. Narrow nationalism went with living in the past rather than respecting it. And driving the country forward at home could only be possible by re-engaging with the outside world (and could be helped by it).

Social rights, environmental protection and peace in Northern Ireland involved a central role for the EU. International stability and the battle against impunity were supported through our role in Nato. Leadership in the battle against international poverty went alongside a war on poverty at home. The campaign to win the Olympics was in part a product of the way the country was motoring at home, but also about building and reinforcing national reputation. 

This was not neoliberalism. Nor was it trickle-down economics.  Nor was it Tory lite.  It was a modernised social democracy with a strong commitment to social liberalism that would have been recognisable to Attlee as well as Keynes, Roosevelt as well as Willy Brandt.  And that was the point.

This is why so much of the debate about Left and Right inside the Labour Party is so confused. The real divide is radical Labour versus Labourism. Much of the so-called Labour left is actually quite conservative. And parts of the Labour right are radical on social questions, or, as in the case of John Smith, on Europe. 

At its best, New Labour was radical Labour. The Third Way is often described, not least by Tony, as borrowing ideas from left, right and centre. But it was also a Third Way within the centre-left: it saw liberalism as too narrow, social democracy as too sectional, and so sought to fuse them together. The problem in my judgement is not that we started down this road, but that we did not keep going.

My view is that a mistaken diagnosis of our successes and failings in government – essentially that we were not “left wing” enough – has marooned us in opposition.

There are a number of reasons for the Corbyn years, but one is that the truth about our record was not defended, and the betrayal thesis took hold. 

After 2010, and in some ways after 2007, we ended up spending too much time apologising for rather than rectifying what we got wrong and too little time explaining, defending, promulgating, building on what we got right. You can be proud of your record while being humble about your mistakes; in fact both are stronger when paired with the other.

In my view, Keir Starmer has made an essential – not just welcome – attempt to begin to change the narrative. He wants to learn from our wins, not just our losses. Because if our only victories of the last 50 years are denigrated as the abandonment of principle then the wrong lessons will be learned.  

The work of constructing a political project takes hard analysis of global trends and local context; real listening to what voters are saying; profound engagement with questions about the meaning of progressive politics when inequalities are complex, ecological and national security threats profound, and issues of identity to the fore; and then policy imagination that maximises change while minimising risk. 

Opinion polls and focus groups can’t do that work for you. It is an intellectual endeavour as well as a political one. As my friend Peter Hyman has written, successful politics takes place at the intersection of what the country needs and what a politician believes with what the electorate wants. 

There is an article by Robert Skidelsy, written 50 years ago, about an article that John Maynard Keynes wrote 90 years ago, that summarises this point brilliantly. Keynes’ article was entitled “The Dilemma of Modern Socialism”. Skidelsky’s article is called “The Labour Party and Keynes”.

Skidelsky summarises Keynes view as follows: “Caught between the obsolete and the Utopian, the [Labour Cabinet of 1931] had been ‘totally unsympathetic with those who have had new notions of what is economically sound’”. 

The obsolete and the utopian. It’s a brilliant description of Labour’s historic error. It sums up how Labour goes wrong, how its right and left can end up cautious when they need to be radical, conservative when they need to be progressive, retreating to the comfort of old ideas when it needs to be looking for new ones, losing when they could be winning. 

In 1997 we rejected both the obsolete and the utopian.  We broke out of the limits of the tribe. But in the process we delivered more of what the tribe believes than any Labour Party since 1945. 

That is the only way to win and the only way to change the country.  And the two are related.  That is why I defend the idea of “project” in politics, and why I also defend “the project” of 1997. The challenge now is not to reheat it. It is to learn from it. Because, just as 25 years ago, it’s the future of the country, not just the party, that depends on it. 

This is an abridged version of a speech made by David Miliband at the Mile End Institute in London, May 6, 2022

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