Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

It’s complicated, stupid

As soon as I read David Miliband’s latest contribution to our political debate, I knew what the main criticism would be. It’s too wordy. It’s too wonky.

So let’s get the stylistic stuff out if the way first. David Miliband is not a great prose stylist. He likes to roll out thinkers, summarise their points and reach conclusions like ‘It is the interaction of these global changes that has reframed the political equation’, pausing only to coin phrases like ‘a decade of disorder’.

Miliband’s favoured style is what you might call ‘high worthiness’, and it is not a good look for politics. There’s only so many times you can read ‘as Al Gore has said’ before you long for a rhetorical jab, jab, hook that would leave potential opponents sprawling on the ropes.

Those are all fair criticisms, but, I suggest, also not very important ones.

A good argument doesn’t need good style to be significant and the argument Miliband makes is worth listening to. If government has failed to protect our economy from collapse, that he’s surely right that this creates a ‘crisis of government legitimacy’ and that Tony Judt’s ‘defensive social democracy’ won’t be enough for a governing party to reverse this.

What lies behind that crisis of legitimacy? Miliband identifies a series of connected global economic shifts – a movement of economic power from west to east, which in turn increases demands for resources and for the freedoms of the open society, which are in turn magnified by transformative technologies in areas like energy, communication, and manufacture, creating a sort of multi-directionally interconnected feedback loop, amplifying change and increasing interdependence and instability. Nor can these shifts simply be opted out of, as the new technologies themselves transmit both expectation and instability.

This creates problems for a left wedded to the role of national government in providing social stability and egalitarian progress. As the state struggles to cope with macro-instability and is forced to insure citizens hugely expensively against failure, that limits the availability of resources to go elsewhere.

Every tension, from how a welfare state copes with immigration to the need to educate the young while supporting the elderly becomes a conflict; politics seems singularly unable to cope, being both too big (in its obsession with money, personality and charisma) and too small (in intellectual and policy responses).

What can we do about this?

Miliband favours a process of empathy, analysis, values, vision and then policy solution. This is perhaps the root cause of his windiness. Once he’s identified the problem he should just get on with the solution and let the values, vision and empathy look after themselves.*

I say these unkind things because, when he wrestles his way to the solutions, Miliband suddenly starts speaking with clarity.

The three problems he analyses are offering people security against risk, meeting people’s expectations of control over their lives, and how to create a sense of belonging. Against this there are some credible policy options.

First, social democrats have to embrace medium-term fiscal ‘prudence’ (Though this is a term for the graveyard of British political rhetoric. Gordon Brown killed it. Come on, out with it. We mean caution, risk-aversion, even – ‘shudder’ – conservatism.) Why? Because, without it, we can’t act when we need to and find ourselves hopelessly exposed during a crisis. Caution is a risk-amelioration strategy.

Next, we have to be passionate about the role of the state in creating wealth. This is industrial strategy, but it’s more than that. It’s about rediscovering our belief in the role of the state as a deliverer, a creator, and guarantor of greater prosperity.

Look at the last 60 years of incredible economic growth, underpinned by western states educating, researching, encouraging and infrastructuring (sorry!) our path to prosperity. Sometimes on the left we’ve sounded a bit ashamed of that role, informed perhaps by our past missteps and mistakes when we took things a bit too far and started trying to make widgets, not widget-designers. But we’re all better now, and so should be more confident.

Then comes a focus on power – whether that of the international alliance, the corporation, the employee or the management of the state.

Here, the social democratic bias is surely always to the liberal, the individual, the innovator and the disruptive force. That requires a tilt in the balance of power towards ordinary people, even when this is disruptive or uncomfortable. This is a vital liberal inoculation against our socialist tendency to monopoly and control.

Finally, there is an emphasis on internationalism – a recognition that the nation-state cannot cope with the challenges it faces on its own. So whatever we might dislike about the European Union, international panjandrums or hypocritical international agencies, it is vital to engage with them, not sulkily seek to be left alone.

This policy prescription – a fiscally prudent, wealth-creating, internationalist politics biased towards solutions that give control to the individual and the small over matters of economic and social power, seems where the next social democratic sweet spot will be. All that is required is a language to make it a little more appealing. Blunt directness might be a good place to start.


*Miliband veers off here to get in some rather tedious digs in about Anglo-Saxon models versus continental models of government – and the old saw about being too hands-on with government and too hands-off with the market reappears.

Personally I’m not sure how a ‘look ma, no hands’ approach to the state would meet Miliband’s identified need to offer security, give people control over their own lives, and foster belonging. I reckon all this hand-wringing values stuff is for the birds, and Miliband would be better to himself and to his readers if he cut it out. He doesn’t need to prove that he’s a European social democrat.)


Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress magazine. He tweets @HopiSen


Photo: Deval Patrick

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Hopi Sen

is a contributing editor to Progress


  • “Look at the last 60 years of incredible economic growth, underpinned by western states educating, researching, encouraging and infrastructuring (sorry!) our path to prosperity ”

    I’d disagree – for most of that period western economies used their strategic, historical advantage to exploit the resources of the developing world and along with that the introduction of women into the employment market created a giant boost to productivity as their talents and abilities were previously underused (of course you only get to do that once and there are no other obvious productivity gains of that scale available). Both these elements had a far more significant impact on economic success than the social democratic state which tended to often merely knock the edges off capitalism and redistribute a bit of growth. Blunt capitalism rather than sharp capitalism and always vulnerable to calls for the latter when growth reduced.

    I don’t even think the social democratic state can even claim the benefit for the move of women into the workplace although its defenders probably will. The war had a more profound effect on social change imho.

    I’ve seen no evidence that social democratic industrial policies have been able to generate the kind of innovation based agglomeration economies you need in order to generate the kind of return that supports a social democratic state. Where they have occured they’ve often been emergent and built on historical advantage (finance in london, biotechnology in cambridge – and globalisation is reducing that advantage. Most industrial production is subject to diffusion in the modern world – you can stick a washing machine factory anywhere and industrial policy has to reflect that. We either make it easy for business to operate through deregulation of employment or we invent new stuff that no one else has – C18th Manchester, Silicon valley etc – these weren’t designed and developed through social democratic industrial policy – they were places that generated a new way of production and came from nowhere.

    I see social democracy as having much less to say in an environment of low growth and I think we’re back to having to pick between marxism (although please god, not the revolutionary sort – more one which transfers the state to communities) and sharper capitalism. Miliband is right to wrestle with these issues as european social democracy is probably facing a much more serious crisis than vanilla capitalism is.

  • I disagree Don; the most significant example of state-led education and research is Silicon Valley. Without huge government investment in NASA and other military technology the road to Silicon Valley would have been much longer and more difficult to navigate.

    It is almost certainly true that the Western states used their strategic, historical advantage to exploit the resources of the developing world and that WW1 and WW2 increased the role of women in the workplace. But this does not discount the role that a social democratic state played in enabling economic growth through increased health, education and mobility and in facilitating a more equitable spread of the proceeds of growth.

    The importance of the public domain is illustrated brilliantly in David Marquand’s book Decline of the Public: The hoolowing out of citizenship.
    A taste of what this book discusses can be seen in David’s article about the fall of Civic Culture;

  • You cannot put good spin on a turd. This was a dreary essay by DM and there’s no denying it.

  • Addressing power “requires a tilt in the balance of power towards ordinary people”.

    I look forward to an explanation of how this “tilt” can be achieved in the face of the might of the military-industrial complex.

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