David Miliband: Parents of children who misbehave feel they need help

The Monday Interview: Minister of Communities and Local Government
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The Independent Online

David Miliband, one of the intellectual stars of the Blair generation, is about to launch a new social contract on Britain.

But Mr Miliband does not pretend to be a new Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century French philosopher who began his Social Contract with the lines: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."

Mr Miliband said: "You could say that Rousseau talked about a social contract; does that mean I am the new Rousseau? No I'm not. I am not getting ideas above my station."

Nor is there any parallel with the Social Contract introduced in the 1970s by the Labour government to impose pay restraint on the troublesome unions.

Tomorrow, Mr Miliband will call for a fresh social contract to restore respect in society. "The social contract has to be built on a strong sense of responsibilities as well as rights. There is a silent majority who want to know there are tools at their disposal when it comes to tackling the minority who make good order in the classroom and the street difficult.

"It's not old-fashioned to believe you should have an ordered society. It is old-fashioned to say it has to be built on some feudal and inherited relationships. I think you can have well-ordered relationship between equals," he said.

Mr Miliband, 39, whose brother Ed, 37, won a seat at the general election, was promoted to the Cabinet on 6 May, into John Prescott's department, with the unenviable task of turning the Prime Minister's latest crusade for respect in society into policy, for which he has been called "minister for respect".

On Thursday, Mr Blair will chair the first meeting of the cabinet committee on respect. On 7 July, Mr Miliband, the minister for Local Government and Communities, will outline a "political contract" to a local government conference, as part of the same respect agenda.

He intends to begin tomorrow with a speech laying out the philosophical basis for restoring respect with his social contract. He said: "Over the past 20 years, a strong economic contract has been developed which is clear about the respective roles of government, private sector and individual citizens ...

"We have a challenge to build as strong and durable a social contract and a political contract to match that economic contract.

"We have got to build a social contract that is clear about how you build respect. We have to develop respect on the basis of extended opportunities and a sense of ownership rather than a reliance on deference which would have been the way the social contract was built 50 years ago."

Ralph Miliband, the brothers' father was a socialist intellectual and a contemporary of E P Thompson, with whom he launched the New Left Review. Ralph, the son of a former Red Army soldier, who had lived in the Jewish quarter in Warsaw, was born in Brussels and escaped to Britain before the war, changing his name from Adolphe.

Politics was meat and drink to the Miliband boys, as they grew up in Primrose Hill, north London. They went to Haverstock comprehensive school, and both took degrees, David gaining a first in philosophy, politics and economics in 1987 at Oxford and studying political science at Massachusetts Institute. David became a dedicated Blairite, joining the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research then being hired to head the Prime Minister's policy unit, and Ed became a Brownite, working closely with Gordon Brown.

Interviewing David Miliband is not easy. He speaks in lists of Labour values, and quotes effortlessly from the Labour manifesto which he helped to write: "Opportunity more equal, communities more secure".

I suggested that philosophical objectives would not impress those voters who complained to Mr Blair during the election campaign they wanted a crackdown on disruptive neighbours, children intimidating estates, and youths with mega-bass speakers thumping music out from their hatchbacks.

"People also realise if it was easy to pass legislation and stop people doing things other people didn't like someone would have thought of it," he said. "There are some complex questions here that are not amenable to simplistic answers."

As a former schools minister, who escaped the furore over A-level results without a blemish, Mr Miliband is using the principles of imposing discipline in schools to fashion the proposals for restoring respect in society.

"We know the broad principles: you have to get in early, you have to have a clear sanctions regime, in terms of escalation," he said. "In school, the basic discipline goes from warning, to yellow card to red card and the red card puts you into the pupil referral unit; those rules have to be consistently applied whether in school or community; and it's not just a job for the police, it's a job for the community."

He rejects The Independent's case that the routine use of Asbos (antisocial behaviour orders) risks stigmatising young people

"I don't agree ... I think we should celebrate what young people do. In my previous job, people accused me of doing too much to celebrate young people. I was saying, 'Let's applaud young people for their exam results'. People were jumping up saying these exam results are not worth the paper on which they are written.

"My experience of the Asbo debate is that people think for the first time anti-social behaviour is being taken seriously. Parents of kids who are misbehaving feel they need help."

He took over the South Shields seat in 2001 from a loyal Blair former cabinet minister, David Clark, who was given a peerage when he stood down, and antisocial behaviour is frequently raised at his constituency surgery. But he feels the antisocial behaviour of a minority is drowning the fact that many young people do voluntary work.

He believes peer pressure among young people has contributed to the breakdown in respect in society. But there is a dangerous fact lurking in the background of his analysis and he is understandably wary.

"This is something I have to reflect on; the people who suffer the greatest anti social behaviour are in the poorest areas. One mustn't, mustn't, draw a line from poverty to bad behaviour but people on the poorest estates do suffer the most."

We are sitting on the sun deck of Mr Prescott's former Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions in Victoria, and Mr Miliband halts as the photographer trains his lens . He may be long on philosophy, but he is media savvy. "There's not a big sweat mark under there, is there?" he asks, pointing to his armpit.

His shirt is dry and we move on to relations with his brother. I asked whether he had arguments with Ed over the dinner table about the failure to achieve more while he was head of the policy unit, a common refrain at the time from other friends of Mr Brown.

"I take responsibility for all that," he says, laughing. "We are not clones of each other. He has never said we have wasted eight years in government. The discussions we have had are about how we can build from where we are.

"You can learn from the past, as someone said, but you mustn't live in it. I feel my generation has got a unique opportunity because we are in politics at a time when we are in government. We have got to make sure we make the most of this opportunity, otherwise we will feel an immense sense of missed opportunity."

We argued about the lack of a clear road map for the Blairite modernisation, for example the botched reform of the Lords. He does not support reform of the voting system. "I never bought the argument that Britain's decline was because of the electoral system. I don't see a mechanistic political or economic/social rationale for that. I don't think you can read off a political imperative or intellectual imperative."

I told him it was not apostasy in Blair's government to support PR. At last he agreed. "Some of my best friends think it's a big issue. We may be a broad church but we don't have an Inquisition."

But arguing with him was like trying to scale the glass walls of his office. His cabinet colleagues may have to make sure the easy philosophical rhetoric is turned into hard policy, but he is intent on laying the intellectual ground first.

"I was born into progressive politics. I wasn't necessarily born into the Labour Party," he said. "Nobody would say I followed slavishly in my parents' political footsteps.

"I think it's important one's political values are forged early in life. It's important to carry on learning. Most people who know me would say that my constituency has been important, it's given me a different prism, given what we were talking about earlier."

The one no-go area for our talk was his adoption of a baby boy in America last Christmas. His British-born wife's parents live in America, but he did not wish to discuss his family. His wife is a professional violinist, but Mr Miliband admits to being tone-deaf. How could he have established a relationship with a musician? "Complementarity," he said. "We met on an aeroplane from Rome to London. Very romantic. Best thing that ever happened to me."

The CV


15 July 1965, London


Haverstock comprehensive; Corpus Christi College, Oxford;

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Married Louise Shackleton, 1998


1987 Parliamentary officer, National Council for Voluntary Organisations

1989 Research fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research

1992 Secretary, Commission on Social Justice

1997 Head of Prime Minister's policy unit

2001 MP for South Shields

2002 Minister of State

for School Standards

2004 Minister for the Cabinet Office

2005 Minister for

Communities and Local Government