What the Milibands really disagree about is why Labour lost and how to win again. … What does "moving on" from New Labour mean, and how deep should it go? David Miliband warns that throwing out too much of a recently successful formula could mean a long spell in opposition; Ed Miliband fears that it is failing to recognise the scale of change needed which would keep the party from power.
I think this disagreement isn’t so much about how successful the New Labour “formula” was or is – rather, it’s how the brothers feel about the Blairite principle quoted in the title above.
Ed thinks Labour was more comprehensively and thoroughly rejected than David thinks. So Ed’s arguing for a bigger reinvention of the party, perhaps on the scale of what Cameron or even Blair did. He’s trying to persuade the party to get on with this quickly, repudiating the last government’s failures, so it doesn’t spend several terms in opposition as Labour and the Tories have done before.
David thinks the party’s not as deeply and widely unpopular as it was in the 1980s or the Tories after 1997, and that it should stand by its successes. He also thinks that such a radical transformation isn’t something you can convincingly pull off in one parliament. He fears that if Labour swallows the narrative that the last government was a failure then it will become accepted fact, making it all the harder for the party to recover.
Ed thinks that Labour lacks control over its past – or rather the public perception thereof – and should focus on moving away from it. David thinks that Labour can affect the way voters view its time in office, and thus how much punishment they think the party still deserves.
In practice, their difference on this is just a matter of degree: both defend and recant various aspects of the last 13 years. But which end of this spectrum should the party lean towards?
In support of Ed’s view is, very obviously and powerfully, the general election result. A half-decent tally of MPs – which won’t survive the boundary review – shouldn’t distract us from a vote share midway between Major’s in 1997 and Foot’s in 1983. It was a kicking.
In support of David’s view is the fact that (despite being rudderless and self-absorbed with its leadership contest) Labour is the first opposition party in many, many years to be significantly up in the polls very shortly after defeat. This doesn’t suggest massive public revulsion at the party. Also, there’s the fact that the coalition is doing its damnedest to blame Labour’s alleged profligacy for the cuts.
So it looks as though who controls the past will have more control over the future. And David may be right to be treating his own cute soundbite - “our task is not to debate a better yesterday, but to build a better tomorrow” – as a tad simplistic.