David Miliband, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, addressed a packed meeting of Brussels Labour this evening to make his pitch for the Labour Party leadership. David offered his vision of the future and of the road back to power for Labour – and outlined the values that would guide his leadership.
Before a group of around 60 Labour members and supporters, David began by thanking Labour members for their hard work in the general election. Without the resolve, drive, and hard work of ordinary members, Labour would have faced a ‘wipeout’ on the scale of the 1983 General Election defeat. The media and money were stacked in the Tories’ favour; however, conversations on the doorstep saved several seats for Labour, such as Birmingham Edgbaston, where Gisela Stuart was narrowly returned.
David said he took heart from the successful local campaign, and said it highlighted the need for Labour to engage again in the “politics of community organisation”. We won 400 council seats on 6 May; we have a base upon which to build. But we need to make sure that we don’t need to lose again – as in 1959 and 1992 – to win again.
To get back to winning ways, David Miliband outlined the need for Labour to do three things: be honest, be authentic, and to change the way we do politics.
We need to be honest about why we lost, he said. We had the second worst result since the 1930s. We had a ‘Southern Disaster’ that went beyond the ‘Southern Discomfort’ described by Giles Radice after the 1992 defeat. We polled only 16% in the South-East, and were almost wiped out. Although we lost a similar number of percentage points in some northern seats, we had a comfortable cushion, and held on. In the South, this was not the case. The leadership let down the membership, and we forced people to vote Tory – without forcing the Tories to win the argument.
We need to be authentic in what we believe, and how we say it. No more triangulation; instead, we need to find the authentic voice that Gordon Brown found in the last week of the General Election campaign. We need to show our passion about education, about tackling climate change, about devolving power not only to local councils, but to people, and about having a compassionate international policy – all points backed up with examples of action by David in his time in government. He argued that we need to reform, and not just invest in, our public services. And he defended the war in Afghanistan as a “war of necessity” to build a secure society in and future for that country.
We also need to change the way we work. Labour was a successful political machine in the 1990s, but it was a machine based on discipline. This worked when we were winning, but sowed the seeds of destruction that grew up when times got tough. We need to get back to community-based organisation, he said, invoking the success of Barack Obama. Labour has a tradition of ‘people before programmes’, and we need to re-discover it. He pledged that his party would be open – and cited a hustings that we went to in Coventry, where one-third of the 250 people present were not party members. By the end of the meeting, Labour had 50 new members. We need to involve our supporters, as well as our members, to grow the party and make it successful and appealing.
David then answered a range of questions from Brussels Labour members on issues such as how to oppose the Con-LibDem coalition, to immigration, to proportional representation, women’s representation, and Europe, wealth inequality and dealing with the Greens.
David said that Labour will fight the coalition when it is wrong, and will also look to appeal to disillusioned Liberal Democrats inside and outside Parliament. He noted that 19,000 people joined the party in the days after the formation of the coalition. He also noted that Labour needs to be the party of community and individual rights and responsibilities. His view of devolved power was ensuringindividual freedom, but only in so far as it does not harm the collective – and he emphasised that Labour is not an ‘individualist party’.
On immigration, he highlighted that the greatest fury was in the parts of the country where there is least immigration. He added that Labour cannot outbid the Tories on immigration and Europe. Instead, he said that Labour needs to talk not about immigration per se, but about the underlying causes – such as housing supply and allocation, public service availability and social security – that feed anger about immigration.
On PR, David said that he favoured the alternative vote system for the House of Commons (noting that only 32% of MPs got more than 50% of the vote) and a PR system for the second chamber – something that could revitalise parties in Tory strongholds. He added that there were too few women in the shadow cabinet, and that the proportion in the PLP (currently 31%) needs to be reflected on the front bench. However, this requires an end to the high ‘attrition rate’ among women MPs, due in no small part to the 24/7 political culture and the additional scrutiny that women politicians face. The briefing culture must end; David added that he never has briefed against colleagues, and that any briefings attributed to his campaign should be dismissed – he will only act himself, or via his spokesperson.
On Europe, he added that it was important to highlight the divisions not only between the Tories and LibDems, but also within those parties. On inequality, he said that we need to stop swallowing the myth that Labour did nothing – he added that OECD figures showed that only Mexico, out of the 24 OECD members, did more in the thirteen years that Labour was in power to reduced income inequalities. We need to lift up those at the bottom, and instill responsibility at the top.
David also highlighted the need to be a ‘red-green’ party, and said that the environment, energy and climate change would be key elements of his offer.
Finally, the issue of the loss of voting rights for UK citizens who have been abroad for more than 15 years was raised. David said that he would be happy to receive a briefing on the issue, including on the ‘use it or lose it’ concept.
Overall, it was a confident, clear, and persuasive pitch – one that he clearly believes in, and will defend with vigour. He has the lead in nominations from the PLP, but it’s still all to play for. His rivals will also make their cases in the coming weeks – with David’s brother, Ed Miliband, due to come to Brussels Labour on 22 June.
David O’Leary | Editor, Germinal
More photos of the event on our Flickr page.
Ed Miliband will come to Brussels Labour on 22 June – details will follow. To join the Labour Party, and have your say on the choice of leader, visit the Labour Party website.
To join Brussels Labour, and to receive information about our Branch meetings and support the Party in Brussels, go to brusselslabour.eu/membership.