David Miliband: Britain is still a nation scarred by class divisions

From a speech given by the Labour MP for South Shields, at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Berlin
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is an irony of modern politics that Britain's Labour Party, in the 20th century one of the least successful social democratic parties in western Europe, should, at the beginning of the 21st century, suddenly look like one of the most successful. As social democratic governments have fallen in Italy and Denmark, and face tough re-election fights in France and Germany, Labour seems to be defying the laws of political gravity. However, whenever anyone says they have found the key to the door of permanent power, they usually end up losing the next election.

The Government has worked hard over the last four years to develop a compelling narrative that adequately defines the values and ambitions of modern social democracy. Hence the debate about the Third Way of the British left. But the Third Way has thus far been defined negatively rather than positively – not the new right of the Conservatives and not traditional social democracy. Ironically, the same weakness is attached to Lionel Jospin. A recent biography is entitled Monsieur Ni-Ni, in reference to his slogan "ni nationalisation ni privatisation" (neither nationalisation nor privatisation). The book argues that he too has suffered from lack of clear and positive political definition.

Contrary to the rabid press hunt for "cronies" and placemen, the Government has not turned New Labour into an all-pervasive political movement. There are many who consider the Government to be better than the alternatives – trade unions, sections of business, parts of the voluntary sector, local government. But that is not the same as a cohesive social movement that the most successful, genuinely hegemonic social democratic parties have achieved. A coalition for change, supported in civil society, academia and the media, is a prerequisite for long-term political dominance, and this is some way off.

Let me turn to the challenges ahead. All socialist and social democratic parties have equality somewhere close to their core. In Britain there has been a debate about the balance between equality of opportunity and equality of result – despite the fact that the two are intimately related. Despite nearly five years of Labour government, Britain remains a country scarred by divisions of class – and those divisions stretch between generations, not just within them.

So relative social mobility – the chance of a son or daughter of a plumber becoming a doctor, relative to the chance of the son or daughter of a doctor being an accountant – has remained unchanged in 100 years. Last year, an unacceptably low number of students from the bottom two social classes went into higher education. In South Tyneside, my borough, only 17 per cent of 18-year-olds went to university. Labour's challenge is to make itself not just the party that tackles existing inequalities, but also the party of social mobility.

We need to remember that it is themes, not policies, that win elections – as Al Gore discovered to his cost. Themes without policies lack substance, but policies on their own are arid. We need to ensure that our values drive our politics and our policies, so that we remain a government rather than an administration – the difference between electing politicians and letting civil servants run the country.

When I joined the Labour team in opposition in 1994, we were insurgents. Today, incumbents have to retain the spirit of insurgency, always revising and moving forward to maintain the political momentum. There are simply no prizes for standing still, because politics abhors a vacuum, and in the world of permanent, multi-outlet media, that is more true than ever.

The charge come election day is always that reform has been insufficient, never that it has been too sweeping or too radical. And if we do not fill the vacuum, the Opposition will.