Writing in the Guardian, Roy Hattersley responds to David Miliband’s criticisms of those wishing to see a more genuinely social democratic Labour Party:
Rejoice. It is just possible that two not very original articles, which recently appeared in small circulation magazines, will stimulate the debate about Labour’s principles and purpose that the party has needed, but lacked, for so long.
In the first article – published in the Political Quarterly – Kevin Hickson and I argued that Labour would only succeed if it based its programme on a coherent and consistent philosophy, that its ideological objective should be a more equal society, and that the Blair and Brown governments had made too little progress in that direction because of two crucial errors: they placed too much faith in the power of markets and they accepted the fashionable view that the role of the state should be drastically reduced. To us it seemed so blindingly obvious that we were not at all surprised when, for months after its first publication, the article was completely ignored.
Then along came David Miliband. His response, in the New Statesman, amounted to the rejection of what he called “Reassurance Labour” – his description of our strongly held belief that, far from being an electoral liability, genuine social democracy is what millions of disillusioned voters are waiting for.
Events conspire to prove our point. Who now believes that “light regulation” will encourage banks to contribute to the general good, or that the profit motive – as illustrated by the collapse of Southern Cross – is the best stimulus to high-quality domiciliary care? If “modernisation” – more often demanded than defined – means accepting that the world is constantly changing, it is a requirement of policy making. If it means that it is now impossible to mobilise a majority for the redistribution of power and wealth, the inherent pessimism is contradicted by the evidence.
There are points at which the two diagnoses coincide. David agrees that, when properly defined, liberty and equality are essentially related, rather than mutually exclusive, conditions. But if he does want a more equal society he has do more than extol its virtues. He has to support the means of bringing it about. And state power is essential to its achievement. We no more believe that the state is always benign than we believe in the extinction, or even the regulation, of a majority of markets. Our complaint against the Blair and Brown governments is that in both areas they lacked discrimination. Markets are often necessary to preserve liberty as well as to promote efficiency – but they are not the best method of distributing welfare, medical care and education. The state sometimes intrudes unacceptably into the lives of its citizens – but more often it is the best way of providing essential social services.
State action is vital to the achievement of a more equal society. It is the most efficient mechanism for the redistribution of power and wealth, and it enables a genuinely egalitarian government to destroy the institutions of inequality and replace them with systems which unite rather than divide the nation.
For some reason, which I cannot explain, David accuses us of wanting to diminish the role of local government. Perhaps he has a guilty conscience. The government in which he served invented “city academies: they are a perfect example of how – by replacing public provision with the individualism of the “choice agenda” – the interests of the articulate, self-confident and determined minority are promoted at the expense of the community as a whole. David ignores the state’s basic duty to protect the vulnerable against private tyranny. So did the Blair-Brown governments. As a result, the bankers’ greed and incompetence created a “lost generation” of the young unemployed.
Understandably, David bridles at criticism of the governments in which he served. We have no doubt that they did much of which the Labour party can be proud. We said so when we campaigned for its re-election. David makes the tired old jibe about the luxury of “principle without power”. But we believe that future office will elude us until we establish a distinctive radical reputation. That requires a leader who has the courage and character to acknowledge the fundamental flaws in New Labour thinking. It is one of the reasons why we voted for Ed Miliband 18 months ago.