John Harris

Journalist & Author

David Miliband and the Labour art of speaking in code | John Harris

New Labour alumni have taken to surreal new heights the practice of putting out coded messages that appear – to the untrained eye – to say close to nothing at great length

Although he has to put up with the gnawing pain of thwarted ambition, it can’t be too bad being David Miliband. Never mind that he still seemingly feels too awful to fight the good fight in the shadow cabinet, in the financial year 2011-12, in addition to his salary as an MP, he turned £410,171 in fees for “consultancy work and speeches”, supplied to such worthy causes as an agribusiness firm called Indus Basin Holding and the United Arab Emirates’ ministry of foreign affairs. How he finds time to represent the struggling folk of South Shields as well as overseeing his Movement for Change (which, according to its blurb, works in “specific areas to support campaigns for change in local communities, to identify and nurture talent and to develop new responses to the challenges that people face”) is anyone’s guess, though his 45% Commons voting record may say something. Or perhaps he’s just given up sleep.

Just to further suggest that’s he’s bionic, the elder Miliband has also become a prolific polemicist, in the Guardian and elsewhere – though then again, maybe “polemicist” is the wrong word. According to my dictionary, to meet that description, you’re meant to be able to turn your hand to “a controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine”. As far as I can tell, he might be in the habit of doing that, but only in a very strange way.

His latest Guardian piece appeared last week and was a masterclass in an age-old political art that alumni of the New Labour regime have taken to surreal new heights. The political vernacular terms it “speaking in code”: putting up kites and undermining your adversaries while ensuring that everything is put so nebulously that you can deny any such thing. To the untrained eye, it looks more like the borderline absurd art of saying close to nothing, at great length.

Miliband’s latest article was ostensibly about the old Blairite theme of so-called public service reform, which of itself may represent a pop at his younger brother: Ed Miliband does not talk about that stuff very much, and his brother’s wing of the Labour party has always used this subject as a club with which to beat its supposedly unreconstructed adversaries. Anyway, the elder Miliband said things such as: “Successful economies in the modern world are not sheepish about the power and responsibility of the state. But there is a catch. We need to be reformers of the state to reboot our economy and build a fairer society … the fiscal crunch requires a different kind of state. The failure of the government’s economic policy makes how much less we spend, and how and where we spend it, a core issue. We cannot meet our goals on jobs, health, education, long-term care and tackling poverty without changing the way government goes about its business.”

At first sight, this stuff might be at least mildly interesting. Does he, perhaps, think the approach that has run from the last government into the current one, whereby bits of the public services are chopped up and handed to Serco and Richard Branson, is still a good idea? Has he begun to have doubts? Or is this some fiscally driven grope into entirely new territory? Who knows, least of all Miliband himself: after 728 words, nothing is clearer at the end than it was at the beginning. One Guardian letter writer moaned: “Having read his piece three times, I haven’t a clue what he means by reform. He has one paragraph with two sketchy proposals, but nothing of substance.” Quite so.

To be fair to Miliband, the archives are bursting with this stuff, much of it written by other people. When I spent a joyous few hours researching this piece, it was available in the same volume as french fries at McDonalds, and was similarly taste-free and borderline pointless. In 2005, for example, that bold New Labour outrider Stephen Byers told us: “Achieving renewal in office can play a crucial part in uniting the party. The process itself needs to be inclusive but perhaps even more importantly, it provides Labour with the opportunity to state exactly what it is for, rather than just what it is against … The task now is to bring forward a policy programme firmly based on the values of the centre-left. The promotion of social justice, opportunity for all and security would maintain that coalition of support that led to landslide victories in ‘97 and 2001.”

Burningly controversial, that was. Among its other disciples, the same rhetorical tradition found another outlet in James Purnell, now of the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) but once hyped as a future Labour leader. Even when liberated from ministerial office, he still tended to speak in the same slightly strangulated way: “The left believes in equality – we disagree about equality of what, but we agree that it should be a goal … I think we need to widen out from a narrow focus on income, to aiming for equality of capability – giving everyone the power to pursue their goals … Over time, New Labour became too much of a sect – we went from big-tent politics to small-gazebo politics.”

Pardon? But back, anyway, to David Miliband and what’s arguably the founding document of his recent outpourings, the leader column he wrote when he guest-edited the New Statesman in July: “As the economy stagnates, politics needs to respond with vigour and imagination … The danger is to confuse being a better opposition with becoming a potential government … Labour’s history is that it wins and governs when it aligns an economic narrative of modernisation with a social agenda of compassion and a political culture of dynamism and progress … Today, Labour has a disruptive economic narrative – that Britain needs fundamental change in its market structure and culture to compete in the modern world. This is bold. Given the crash, it is also necessary … The point is that defence of the status quo cannot deliver our goals … In developing new policies, Labour cannot afford the old politics of a conversation with itself.”

Brilliant! While we’re here, it’s also worth mentioning a recent jointly authored piece in the Observer by Miliband and the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, who went all the way to the Democratic National Convention and came back brimming with useful thoughts. From the top, then: “We need to be state reformers as well as market reformers …. we win by looking like the whole of the country not just part of it … we have to find new ways to connect our politics with the small businesswoman in Ipswich, the GP in Fleetwood, the personal trainer in Gloucester.”

Sorry, but only people who have spent far too long in the mind-bending environs of Westminster could write a sentence like that. Who knew that things are now so bad there’s only small businesswoman in Ipswich, and a solitary fitness instructor in Gloucester? And why pick on Fleetwood?

You can do this stuff, too, if you’re bored: it’s like a party game for people who are far too interested in the minutiae of politics. Essentially, you sling together one or two cliches, at least one word or phrase (such as “reboot”) that suggests you own a computer, and a couple of propositions that it would be impossible to argue against (a la “Feed the world” or “Make trade fair”). You then chuck in some apparently oxymoronic ideas, to make yourself look a bit clever.

Just watch: “We need to represent the whole of Britain, not just some of it. In doing so, we will move into the radical centre, and prove that if you’re hard, you can also be soft. In a time of change, we must be the change-makers. Opportunity must be our watchword. Watchwords must be our opportunity. It is time to switch Britain off and on again. We deserve nothing less. And nothing more. Neither does the mechanic in Morecambe, or the wrestler in Rhyl. We will win. Or we might lose.” Etc, etc.

What, aside from firing muted shots in some factional battle no one really cares about, is the point? Right when this most miserable of rhetorical traditions is refusing to die, people at the opposite end of the political spectrum are mastering the business of being altogether more blunt and plain-spoken. For proof, read the already-infamous Tory treatise Britannia Unchained – which may advocate working until you drop dead and deregulated everything, but is at least coherent and straightforward. Meanwhile, David Miliband and his ilk talk – but say what, exactly? Time to leave the gazebo, disrupt the economic narrative and reboot? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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