David Miliband set out his concerns about the predicament of the European left in a speech at LSE this evening. The full text of his speech is available at Labourlist here, and Next Left has a little post from earlier here.
As you would expect from the elder Miliband, the speech is full of references to thinkers in Labour’s past and a compassionate understanding of some of Europe’s main centre left parties. The headline fact is that at no time since World War I has the left not been in power in the UK, Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy and Sweden, and Miliband sums up the predicament this way:
Left parties are losing elections more comprehensively than ever before. They are losing from government and from opposition; they are losing in majoritarian systems and PR systems; just for good measure they are losing whatever position the party had on the Iraq war; and they are fragmenting at just the time the right is uniting.
It’s from this point on that it’s possible to examine Miliband’s words, and also try to propose some first hints of ways forward.
First of all the very contention that the ‘right is uniting’ is not universally clear. While Merkel might be in a centre-right administration with the FDP, it has been far from plain sailing. The polls from Sweden that many did not vote Social Democrat (Socialdemokraterna) due to their likely alliance with the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet) should be set against the fact that the election winners were a four-party coalition led by the Moderates (Moderaterna).
Miliband berates this electoral fracturing on the left, but does not explain how this issue should be solved. The Left Party in Sweden or The Left (Die Linke) in Germany are not going to go away (more on that here), so the emphasis has to be on making centre-left alliances palatable to voters of all parties, rather that traditional centre left parties trying to beat each other.
Related to this is how the parties of the traditional left communicate to their voters. Miliband interprets this in terms of voters feeling economically squeezed, that they already pay as much tax as they can tolerate, and how centre left parties have to cope with this constraint. I would look at this matter somewhat differently, in terms of framing of the left’s message.
The great success of the Greens in many European countries, often at the expense of the traditional left, is because they have found a way to articulate a positive and socially responsible vision of the future, something the traditional left managed to do in the late 1990s but has found hard to achieve since then. However the Swedish Social Democrats attempted a positive election programme for 2010 but it didn’t do them much good in the election…
Miliband is right to say that any vision for the future of the left has to embrace the reform processes of the 1990s, New Labour, Die Neue Mitte etc., and learn how to move forward from those. Simply turning the clock back, looking to the 1980s or earlier for inspiration is not going to help deal with the problems of the 2010s. Yet conversely – particularly in the UK and Germany – there is still much bitterness in the public discourse about the records of the Blair governments (mostly on Iraq) and Schröder (mostly about Hartz IV). It must be Miliband’s hope, in the UK at least, that after a year or two in opposition that the electorate thinks back to Labour’s 12 years in power with a little more fondness.
In terms of ways forward I think Miliband, Labour and the left in European countries need to look at output legitimacy rather than legitimacy just because something is done by the state, and to focus on individual citizens and their relations with the state and with power. “We are socialists not statists” is how Miliband puts it, and he is right. The future of the left must be about the values and the outcomes, not about the distinction between public and private, or public and third sector. This would also free Labour to find ways to work with community groups, a point Miliband goes out of his way to underline.
Overall it’s hard to disagree with the gist of Miliband’s analysis. This, it would seem, is stage 1 – a thorough analysis of the problems. Stage 2 would be some more fleshed out proposals for a way forward, and Miliband is going to be as good as anyone on the left to look to do just that over the coming months.
February 19, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution