Miliband: The Knives are Already Being Sharpened

November 2, 2010 6:50 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Funny old thing, Labour Party democracy. They elect a leader that neither the membership nor their MPs want because of ballot of eligible union members with a turnout of around 2% apparently based upon the basis of the voter ticking a box marked “Labour supporter”. Many Labour members ended up with two, three or even more votes depending upon their membership of an affiliated union and one or more of the ‘societies’ affiliated to the Labour Party (the Jewish Labour Movement, the Fabians, Christian Socialist Movement and so on, seventeen in all) who more less discretely ask if new members are eligible to join the Labour Party. In practice, if you want to vote in Labour elections just pay the society or union membership subscription and you will get the ballot paper even if you are in the BNP. Understand all this? Thought so.

Still, the ballot did tell us some interesting things about the Party’s membership. One thing is just how small is the number of what might be called old-time socialists. Diane Abbott’s vote of around 8% of the members suggests that members of the Labour Representation Committee with its heroic defence of Labour as a socialist party, at least potentially, might as well fold their tent and look elsewhere, perhaps to form a party which would represent their views. In fact, about 55% of LP members seem to have views which accord with the centrist or even centre-right positions of David Miliband and Andy Burnham whilst less than 40% agree with the roughly centre-left positions taken, at least for the moment, by the two Ed’s. (Both born Edward, incidentally, though Ed does sound, how shall we say, more matey. Perhaps Dave Miliband might have won). So was Ed elected by trade-union votes and by a tiny fraction of eligible voters? Well, yes, of course. And does that matter? Well, perhaps.

So what problems does the winning Ed now face? Two obvious and immediate ones.

The first , clearly, is just what he stands for in terms of policy and what has come to be called ‘vision’. Neal Lawson, leader of the Labour pressure-group, Compass, was ecstatic about Miliband’s first speech to conference when he spoke to a fringe meeting. It “ticked all the policy boxes” of Compass and meant that this centre-left group was now “mainstream”. Well, Compass policy boxes are a bit of a mix but some, mentioned by Neal, are very specific. So it is odd in view of Lawson’s ecstasy to find that ‘high pay commission’, ‘loan sharking’, ‘Royal Mail’, least of all ‘Trident’ are not mentioned in the text of his speech. A motion on Trident put forward by the Hackney CLP (that pesky Abbott) was actually ruled out by the Conference Arrangements Committee as being not ‘contemporaneous’ (sic) the day after Compass published an email to be sent to George Osborne by their supporters saying cut Trident not public services. Perhaps it should have been sent to Ed Miliband. He did use the phrase ‘good society’ four times however, a phrase on which Neal claims copyright and might be construed as a leftward shift (though it would not be surprising if it found its way into David Cameron’s lexicon).

The point of course is that Ed Miliband is trying to pull off a difficult circus trick, that of riding two horses simultaneously. He knows that he has to shift a bit to the left if only because the policies of the old Labour government closely resembles that of the new Coalition. He knows that the Iraq war has left a poisonous legacy inside Labour which has to be expunged. He knows that public service cuts following budget deficit reduction have to be opposed. But at the same time he cannot disclaim too much of his legacy if only because he was in the Cabinet when all the neo-liberal polices of Brown were being pushed through.

So the war in Iraq was a “mistake”. But was it also ‘illegal’ as Nick Clegg rightly claims. If so then are Blair and his colleagues in 2003 war criminals? And what about the post-war behaviour of the British army in Iraq? The upcoming inquiry into torture allegations will ensure that this will not go away. And what about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, not illegal as such but unwinnable and increasingly unpopular? Well, that seems OK, at least for now.

Public service cuts? “Well , I [Ed Miliband] believe strongly that we need to reduce the deficit. There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. Some of them will be painful and would have been if we were in government. I won’t oppose every cut the coalition proposes. There will be some things the coalition does that we won’t like as a party but we will have to support” Public services are not mentioned. Opposition to cuts? Well, Ed Miliband supports trade unions but only responsible ones. “That is why I have no truck, and you should have no truck, with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes.” So, not just no strikes but no threat of strikes. Just what weapons this leaves the loyal trade-unionists who voted for him is unclear. Perhaps they can wave placards in their lunch-break. On the other hand, he does believe that care-workers should be paid better. In a later television interview he was pressed about deficit reduction. He stuck to the overall policy of Alistair Darling but felt that he would like to see more of the reduction coming from higher taxes. What taxes? Well, tax the banks and crack down on tax dodgers. Expect to hear much more on the lines of ‘Show us your taxes. Ed”.

Trying to ride two horses at once is a skilful and elegant trick but, ultimately, it usually requires a choice between one of them to avoid the nasty consequences of them pulling too far apart. There is no sign so far that Ed Miliband understands this nor what his ultimate choices will be. His problem is really that Nick Clegg and most of the LibDems are settling themselves rather comfortably in the centre and centre-right part of the political spectrum once occupied by New Labour. When in power, this occupation pushed the LibDems into rather uncomfortable postures leaning to the left. Now the position is reversed and Clegg and Cable seem to have a fairly clear strategic perception of where they want to be. Labour hasn’t.

The second problem Ed Miliband faces is possibly more immediate and perhaps more important. The fact is that much of his party and most of his MPs distrust and dislike him. It’s not personal, he is possibly a very nice bloke; in Michael Gove’s faint praise, he is “intelligent, decent, humane”. But Labour is now a regional party of the English north and the Celtic nations with an enclave in inner London. And up here, they really do not like him. They dislike his comfortable passage wafting from a cosy Hampstead comprehensive to a place at Oxford, presumably on the basis of a ‘good interview’, after a time as an intern to Tony Benn. (Another man who has shortened his given name to something more matey). They fail to understand just why he then entered the charmed circle of Labour advisers after a brief spell working or possibly interning in television nor are they deeply impressed by a further stint ‘teaching’ at Harvard on the basis of a Master’s degree in economics. They have had clever children in comprehensives who never got near an Oxford interview and who still search for a break into some kind of media job. They simply do not understand nor like the mechanisms whereby London Labour looks after its own. They rather remember his dad not as a towering Marxist scholar but as an old Trot who occasionally wrote dull and not particularly original books trashing the Labour Party whilst mostly writing articles in obscure journals about how the working class should behave whilst not bothering to get involved in any actual political activity. They hate the way in which London fixes safe northern seats for their golden boys (and occasional girls) where they do not understand the local dialect and keep their visits to a minimum. They don’t really get the stuff about being the son of penniless Jewish refugees; it runs much less well if your dad was a Fife miner. They hate the idea of a Hampstead salon where the likes of (gulp) Tony Benn, Tariq Ali and Ken Livingstone smiled at the young Milibands. They dislike snuggling up to the LibDems who are hated up here even more than the Tories. And, deep down, they hate the knowledge that none of their own has, any more, the political stature to stand up to what Jon Cruddas, an erstwhile left MP who scored a spectacular own-goal by supporting Brother David but who can smell a wind when it is blowing, called “a metropolitan liberal faction”. Faction is a dangerous word to use in Labour circles as Cruddas must surely know. The last one was Militant.

Does he know about these pressures? Probably not. It is unlikely that he learnt much about the Labour Party as he floated up in his balloon and he probably still sees the ferocious Blair/Brown conflict as just a matter of two combative individuals rather than the personification of two long antagonisms inside not just Labour but of the entire British left, a fault line between its initial constituents which has never fully closed. Labour was set up as an open federation of the trade unions and the progressive intellectual societies which elaborated a full political programme. In a Gramscian paradise, this combination would be seen as the ideal historical bloc, the proletariat with its inherent but inchoate ‘common sense’ and the organic intellectuals turning this into the ‘good sense’ needed to change society. But in the real world, this kind of federation which has never progressed to the unified structure of most social-democratic parties requires a leadership drawn from all parts of the federation. Throughout most of its history, this is exactly what Labour had with strong leaders from the unions buttressing the middle-class Oxbridge intellectuals, something true of both left and right factions.

This has now effectively collapsed with Oxbridge winning by default. The disappearance of strong leaders from the labour movement both inside and outside Parliament is one of the great problems of the British left (Jack Dromey, anyone? Or Bob Crowe, just to balance the sides?). However it is a fact of life and is unlikely to be remedied anytime soon. Both Blair and Brown managed to avoid the problem, the former by his uncanny ability to float above any class or national label, the latter by his long apprenticeship in the snake-pit of Scottish Labour. But with Ed, the issue has finally come home to roost. He will, undoubtedly, try to shift the basis of Labour away from its cumbersome federal roots and more towards the supporter-based movement as against party favoured by his brother. But he is going to be handicapped, possibly fatally, by the label applied so openly by Cruddas. The knives are already being sharpened; the only real question is who will wield them.


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This post was written by Michael Prior

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