David Miliband 7 March, 2012, at the University of Manchester
It was standing-room only, in a buzzing lecture theatre at the University of Manchester, when David Miliband spoke to PolSoc students as part of a tour of universities to support the Labour Party’s living wage campaign*. As the instigator of the party’s “movement for change” programme, which aims to make the party be more outward-looking, he also hopes the tour will go some way to narrow the gap between Westminster politics and the political conversations in lecture theatres and homes throughout the country. The questions asked by the audience must have been unpredictable, compared to a typical Labour Party audience, but he deftly handled issues which covered the Labour Party leadership, domestic issues, Syria, Iran, US, Russia and Europe. Hillary Clinton would have been impressed.
On the elections
Labour suffered its biggest loss in 80 years. We need to understand why people voted against Labour and respect, though that does not mean agree, with their reasons. Labour was perceived as the establishment, the big state and economically untrustworthy. New Labour was too hands on with the state and hands-off with the markets. We also need clear ideas for the future which is why it took the Tories so long to get back in power, and even then with only 37% of the vote, people weren’t ready to trust them.
Labour holds only 12 of 210 seats in the South. We must win these. Some of the answers for the party’s future come from the sort of model Manchester Labour Party and its Council have implemented. It is outward-looking, ruthlessly focussed on the future, unlike some parts of its Party.
On the big issues
At the same time as the Party self-analysis we must also analyse the country in its global context. 24 out of 27 European states are now run by centre-right governments. They are all competing with each other for austerity, yet they are in the same trading area. There will be recession.
There are four big forces shaping politics throughout the world:
1. The shift in economic power from West to East, which is the biggest, fastest shift ever seen.
2. Non-oil commodity prices are rising fast. There is a danger of war as a result of resource squeeze. The Yemen could be the first country to run out of water.
3. There is a democratic surge in Muslim counters, the growth of political Islam.
4. There is a shift in power relations between the people and government, the civilian surge. This is facilitated by increase in education, mobility of people and the internet and social media ,which enables people to share ideas more than ever before. Governments need to be more concerned about what people are thinking.
Greece’s problem is not debt but growth. Whilst Italy and Spain have liquidity problems, Greece has a fundamental solvency problem and it is difficult to see how it can compete in the Eurozone.
In the modern world we need to secure our own neighbourhoods, act as part of regional blocks. Britain is part of a global hub, connected to ideas, institutions and people who matter. We are members of the UN Security Council, the EU, Nato and the Commonwealth.
If we want to be influential internationally we need to act with the EU. Reducing student visa’s reduces our presence as the international hub. The Manchester University scientists who discovered graphene would not have obtained visas to undertake research in Britain under the current policy.
We are a potential coalition-builder but there is a danger that being linked to Britain could be seen as toxic. That’s the trouble with bridges: people walk all over them.
On China and Russia
There are debates in China and Russia that authoritarian capitalism is more successful than democratic capitalism; the European Union states are focused on the short-term rather than strategic. Russia has no respect for weakness but Putin is an autocrat not a dictator.
On the Middle East
Sanctions and isolation are not a solution to the problems in the Middle East. There is a danger we could sleep-walk into war. The Israelis are egged on by some Sunni Arab states who are trying to quash the Shias, whilst Iranian strategy is to destabilise near-by Arab states. Iran has more bloggers per head of population than any other country anywhere else on the world. GDP is falling; they need trade. They need to be persuaded to use their nuclear programme for peaceful purposes, but they should not to be humiliated, to appear as if they have been defeated.
Military intervention is not be a solution to end the appalling sectarian violence which has now taken hold in Syria. Other countries’ wars could be fought there, as happened in the Lebanon with Iran and Saudi Arabia piling in. The answer is for the international community to unite to engage with Russia to put pressure on Assad.
On the riots
There has been no discussion in the media recently about the riots, it’s as if they have just gone away and it’s assumed they will not happen again – very risky. The reasons in Tottenham and Manchester and some other places were down to policing issues. Overall it was not economic poverty which drove the rioters but the culture of consumption.
One thing that never changes over the years, is the blond guy with glasses holding copies of Socialist Worker newspaper. Inevitably his question attacks Labour for the cuts, totally ignoring any influence of Tory policy. Miliband, who has already met him outside responds resolutely, defends the city council. Strikes will not make any difference. He’s not against direct action but not in this case. The Manchester Labour Council has sweated blood to protect workers from central government cuts.
As ever, David Miliband, fields questions about the leadership elections and the calibre of the current leader with diplomacy, humour, even flirtatiousness. However, he categorically states that the party has chosen its leader for 2015 and he does not want to be it. As the meeting closes, we learn he is about to be interviewed by the BBC, and he tells us he is attending a dinner with Bury’s Labour Party. Although there is not a hint from his facial expression, nor barely a change in the tone of his voice, I do not believe the dinner is something he is looking forward to. Of course he may be attending as a favour to a friend, but I just wonder why a backbench MP would be hanging around when he could get home to his children in London. I certainly believe he is absolutely committed to social justice and an egalitarian agenda, but less convinced that Miliband the elder has no ambition to be a leader in 2015.
* Manchester University have now agreed to implement a living wage (£7.20 an hour). Manchester Metropolitan has still to follow suit.