Clare Short: How can Miliband be the answer to Labour's ills?

Our Foreign Secretary continues to spread suffering and anger across the Muslim world

Tuesday 05 August 2008 00:00

The summer, when parliament closes down and people go on holiday, is famously known as the silly season. New Labour is certainly celebrating it in spectacular style.

It seems that the Blairites have decided that they have had enough of Gordon Brown and are planning a leadership challenge led by the young David Miliband.

They have obviously lost control of their senses. The first problem is that most normal people have never heard of David Miliband. He became head of policy for Tony Blair at age 29. In 2001, he had a parliamentary seat arranged for him by Tony Blair. He was immediately made minister for schools and supported the regime of endless testing and league tables that is so badly damaging our educational system. In the run-up to the Iraq war, I spoke to him to ask if he couldn't prevent Tony from making such a terrible mistake. He said that he was keeping out of it.

After that, he went straight into the Cabinet, with responsibility for the environment, and seemed, for a moment, to be radicalised by the threat of global warming. There was vague talk of him running against Gordon Brown for the leadership, but he had no chance of winning and he soon pledged his support for Brown and was rewarded with the post of Foreign Secretary. Many thought that Brown had appointed someone who looked as though he was a clever sixth-former on work experience to enhance his own gravitas.

Miliband tells us he has enjoyed being Foreign Secretary, but he has made no changes in the foreign policy that made Blair so profoundly unpopular in the UK. He continues to support Bush's policy towards the Middle East, which breaches international law and continues to spread suffering and anger across the Arab and Muslim world. And he has also made no change in relation to the mounting problem of Afghanistan.

So the question is, how can the Blairites think that David Miliband is the answer? Have they already forgotten how unpopular Blair had become by the time he left office? In 1997 Labour won 13.52 million votes, 450,000 more than Wilson won, which gave him a narrow majority in 1966. In 2005 Blair won 9.54 million votes, the second-lowest Labour vote in post-war Britain.

It is simply false to suggest that Blair put forward a massive new coalition. The rise of the third party, and historically poor performance of the Tories, explains the electoral victories. But in 2005, the election when Blair got so panicked he had to ditch Alan Milburn and send for Brown, New Labour only won 2 in 10 of those registered to vote and 2 in 6 of the votes cast.

It is notable that when Gordon Brown took over, his popularity soared. He suggested he was going to change policy. He seemed to distance himself from Iraq policy and from Bush and said there would be more consultation and less spin. People were full of hope. And then he almost called an election, but didn't. He made a terrible policy decision by abolishing the 10p rate and increasing the tax on the low paid so that he could outdo the Tories as a tax-cutter. And since then, he has changed nothing that Blair had left behind. The country was duly disappointed and on top of this the economy turned down.

My own view is that Brown's tragedy is that he did not have the courage to turn in a social democratic direction. Even now, there is much he could do. The most urgent foreign policy crisis lies in the Middle East. Britain should break away from its poodle role and join with others to reshape policy and stand up for international law.

He should also listen to those who work in the public services, slim down the burden of bureaucratic targets and endless reorganisation and give back the authority to innovate at local level. On the environment, we need action, not words. Sweden is phasing out the use of fossil fuels by 2020. We could do the same, encourage ground source heat pumps instead of gas, cut everyone's bill and massively reduce emissions. There is much more that would be possible in the 22 months that remain.

Those who want to save Labour from a dreadful result in 2010 need to look at the reality rather than their own propaganda. Blairism was a failure. Brown's problem is that he doesn't have the guts to return to his social democratic roots. David Miliband will not become the leader. The system makes a challenge almost impossible. The Blairites have learned no lessons from Blair's failure and have made no policy proposals. They are simply creating division and bitterness that will make the Labour defeat even worse.

The writer was the international development secretary from 1997 until 2003. She resigned the Labour whip in 2006.

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