All The More Reason

The Milburn Intervention
September 4, 2006, 1:28 pm
Filed under: Labour Party, Uncategorized

The Labour party takes debate very seriously, so seriously we don’t really know when debate is appropriate and when it isn’t – thus the party often finds itself bogged down in Somme-style trench warfare moving no where at all very quickly whilst the British public looks on in bewilderment. Alan Milburn knows this well, having spent the eighties in the party, when the Militant tendency high jacked party meetings the length of the land to debate over when the eventual triumph of the proletariat would occur (copy of dog-eared E.H. Carr in hand): meanwhile Mrs. Thatcher privatized the commanding heights of the economy, sold public housing to an eager and aspirational working-class and morphinated her people with the opiates of rump chauvinistic little-Englanderism (we pulled out of UNESCO, ignored Europe and years on the Tories did nothing as Serbian troops killed Muslim women and children on European soil, but I digress).

So, in light of this, I found Comrade Milburn’s intervention in the Sunday Times yesterday (3rd Sep ’06) baffling, but engaging. The immediate reaction to Milburn’s Times piece was negative in the extreme, a source close to the Chancellor described it as a ‘kamikaze’ statement, ‘He seems to be doing something destructive to Gordon Brown, with Tony Blair’s approval,’ he added. Yet, in some ways Mr. Milburn’s position is closer to that of the British public than that of the Brownites. The British public do not want a coronation. In fact, a discourse-free crowning of Gordon Brown as Blair’s successor with the party making as little fuss as is possible, would be a PR disaster. Brown cannot act like a ‘Trappist monk’, our democracy is no longer feudal, if he wishes to be Prime Minister then he must lay out his policy framework. This is of course easier said than done, many of Brown’s best ideas he has implemented, and many are works-in-progress (such as the child poverty agenda) – but it is essential. Unless the party renews, it is going to seem very stale come 2009, especially with new kid on the block Dave Cameron harping his own brand of trendy diet government.

We need debate and we need policies, why should a family vote for us into the next decade, a promise of more of the same isn’t going to cut it: especially as our agenda is rapidly becoming unpopular and distrusted. Brown’s allies do a serious disservice to our Chancellor, a man  I believe ought to be the next leader of the Labour party, by curtailing debate; Gordon should be subject to the same discoursive market-forces that we hope to use to raise public sector standards, if he can’t persuade the party he is the leader-elect, he shouldn’t be leader.

The negative almost hysterical reaction to this burst of common sense, says a lot about the changes to the party over the last decade: it seems Mr. Milburn is taking an unedifying dose of his own medicine. After the glorious vintage year of ’97, the discipline the party managed to hold together since the election of Blair was instilled still further. Battle axes like Mr. Milburn were none too pleased to hear voices of dissent within the parliamentary party and the crack of the Whips kept the PLP in lean shape. That leanness has gone, the PLP is flabby and misshapen, and the last parliament was the most rebellious in modern history ( yet, we still can’t do debate. Kremlinologists in years to come, pouring over voting records, will find this disparity baffling – how did this fiercely rebellious parliament have so few meaningful debates? Our MPs will vote against the government, but the soul of the party is dead and perhaps was still-born into government in ’97. Milburn et al.’s axe didn’t work, and now Milburn finds himself the victim of this – once you shut down avenues of debate and centralize power, there is no chance of going back. I don’t think Alan will savour the irony of the dish he helped cook.

Another irony of Milburn’s position is that it seems to challenge the legitimacy of the very manifesto he wrote. The manifesto of 2005 has posited serious constitutional questions in light of Blair’s pledge not to stand for a forth term: if we elect a government on its manifesto, then Brown is in effect shackled to the Blairite codicils of Milburn’s document. Milburn may well be aware of this irony; if Brown strays too far from his document then it raises the spectre of an early election (something not too appealing), if Brown continues with Milburn’s manifesto then what is the point of debate? Of course the hornet’s nest could easily be dealt with if the writer of our manifesto became our next Prime Minister.

As a party we need to reengage democratically, top-down politics has not worked. The Big Conversation was cosmetic and though a good idea it seemed incongruous in the face of a government that as yet implemented the constitutional reforms important and influential backbenchers such as Dr. Tony Wright have advocated. Debate is, as Mr. Milburn concludes, essential. The hysterical Brownites’ reaction to this bout of common sense did nothing but damage the Chancellor; but in opening this debate we need parameters and we need reform, this is not to be an opportunity for Brown’s enemies to score points off the man whom the party will eventually need to unite around.

Mr. Milburn, by all means defend the impressive Blairite record and challenge received conventions on taxation (and the efficiency of tax credits), etc., but if this is to be at the expense of the Chancellor, the price will be the retreat of progressive politics and the triumph of Cameron’s reactionaries.


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