My Vision for the Future: Will the Forthcoming Change of Prime Minister Lead to a Radical Change in British Politics? as Speculation Mounts about a Leadership Contest, David Miliband Sets out a New Approach Designed to Revitalise the Centre-Left

By Miliband, David | New Statesman (1996), April 2, 2007 | Go to article overview

My Vision for the Future: Will the Forthcoming Change of Prime Minister Lead to a Radical Change in British Politics? as Speculation Mounts about a Leadership Contest, David Miliband Sets out a New Approach Designed to Revitalise the Centre-Left


Miliband, David, New Statesman (1996)


Politics requires many virtues--organisation, ideas, resolution, luck. But chief among them is the hardest to define: that elusive sense of being in tune with the times. Political parties succeed when they join their values to deep economic, social and cultural trends. I am convinced that a fourth election victory, and fundamental changes to the landscape of Britain, are possible precisely because a more demanding, educated, savvy population want the power and control that modern progressive politics can offer. I believe the opportunity is as great as at any time in the past 60 years.

In the years after 1945, people said: "I need ..." I need the basics of a civilised life: good insurance against pain and economic misfortune, a decent education and housing. The Labour Party understood that mood, shared it and enacted policy to make it real.

The fit was both philosophical and administrative. Labour's governing ideas of community and fraternity were perfectly suited to a society that had lived through the most binding of all common experiences, a war against an aggressor. Labour's strategy--the state as the provider of social goods such as healthcare and education--was no more than a continuation of the evident success of the wartime economy. Millions of lives were made better as a result.

In the 1980s, "I need" was replaced as the dominant philosophy by the politics of "I want". A political philosophy emerged which, again in its ideology and its methods, understood the times. The Thatcher government licensed this materialism, encouraged aspirations and captured a new constituency. Its method was simple: get out of the way. The revolution was never completed. The state actually grew in size.

Millions of people, every bit as aspirant as those who had been rewarded, were left behind. Some communities missed out altogether.

The government stood by. The helping hand of the state had been scorned, replaced by the invisible hand of the market. We are still living with some of the consequences of those times: the families struggling to get on the housing ladder; the young people outside education, training or work, unsure of their futures. The politics of "I want" collapsed under its own weight. In the end, no society can be the sum total of individual desires.

Since 1997, Britain has changed in some ways more fundamentally than new Labour promised. It is a different country--richer, fairer, more confident. I also think it is being driven forward by a new spirit. I call it the politics of "I can". The era of "I can" is the culmination of the long decline of deference and automatic authority. It is the late flowering of individual autonomy and control. It is, in other words, one of the founding ideas of left-of-centre politics: to put power in the hands of the people.

In the "I can" era, people want to be players, not just spectators. They want to be contributors, not just consumers. Technology is enabling these aspirations to be fulfilled and new institutional models to emerge. In South Korea, the online newspaper Ohmynews has, as its motto, "every citizen is a reporter". It is the first "paper" in the world where the majority of the content is written by freelance contributors who are mostly ordinary citizens. YouTube and MySpace enable citizens to create and distribute content, shifting power from traditional broadcasters and record companies to citizens and small groups.

Politics cannot stand apart from these changes. A generation is coming to political maturity that expects not just high standards of provision, delivered quickly to specification, but also real control.

David Cameron is groping for this when he talks about social responsibility. But it is not enough to say that the world would be a better place if people showed social responsibility. This soon becomes a new code for malign neglect, the old Tory idea in fancier dress.

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My Vision for the Future: Will the Forthcoming Change of Prime Minister Lead to a Radical Change in British Politics? as Speculation Mounts about a Leadership Contest, David Miliband Sets out a New Approach Designed to Revitalise the Centre-Left
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