What’s Red About Ed?

September 27, 2010

What’s red about Ed?

Not that much. As the man himself admits, “It is not about some lurch to the left, absolutely not. I am for the centre-ground of politics, but it is about defining where the centre ground is”. As MP for Doncaster North, Miliband voted in favour of replacing Trident, gave unswerving support for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, voted against the holding of a public inquest on the Iraq War, supported making the asylum system even stricter, and was pro-ID cards. Even on climate change, he opposed a motion that called for annual action plans on emissions reductions, measures to make the installation of insulation easier for householders and regulations on energy companies to encourage energy saving, not just selling.

In fact, Ed’s one act of rebellion (and in a fairly even division between Labour MPs at that) was over reform of the House of Lords. To his credit, Miliband supported an entirely elected second chamber, against the wishes of the government. But in five years of inhabiting the House of Commons, that is the one and only occasion that the new Labour leader has been his “own man” in any discernable way.

But it is interesting to note where Miliband has been in any way distinctive. During the Labour leadership campaign, the younger Miliband brought up the “I” word during hustings, arguing that war could have been avoided and, in any case, should always be a last resort – to which his rivals (all of them murderously tainted by their support for Tony Blair’s crusade) could offer no response. Any distancing from his colleagues was minor. In an interview, Ed Miliband admitted that “what I am not saying is that the war was undertaken for the wrong motives” while the major problem was not a moral objection to the war, but the “loss of trust” that the public had in New Labour. Hence the need to, somehow, “draw a line” beneath the War – a deeply hypocritical stance to be sure – but one which created the merest sliver of room for opponents of the war to support him. It may be that this drew some support away from his rivals. But by no means should any Labour members or sympathisers be deluded that their new leader was “anti-war.”

In reality, Ed Miliband is an unimpeachable centrist and Labour party machine man. That is why heavyweights within the party are lining up to position him and his shadow cabinet firmly within “middle Britain.” What’s interesting about all of this is the way that such figures see the challenge facing them. Almost without exception, they bemoan the “loss of faith” that the electorate now exhibits. As Peter Hain put it yesterday, “we need to understand why 5 million people who voted Labour in 1997 progressively lost faith in us and why they gave up on us” while Alastair Darling calls on Miliband to show the “commitment to win back the trust and support we need from the people of this country.”

There is a palpable sense of fantasy surrounding Labour these days. Hain and Darling seem to think that the British people had “faith” in Tony Blair, that most slippery of political operators, when in reality the 1997 landslide was produced by a vote of only 44 percent, and a turnout of 71 percent. And since then, the Party hardly gained the loyalty of the masses, with the Iraq War, expenses scandals, numerous ministerial gaffes, draconian terror laws, torture allegations, the ongoing disaster in Afghanistan, backsliding on electoral reform, a deeply contradictory climate policy, alienation of rural areas through the fox-hunting ban, lax financial controls, retention of Thatcher-era trade union legislation and an ongoing deterioration in public services, despite heavy investment. Hence it’s fairly extraordinary that Hain can stand before the Conference and say something like:

During our last years in Government, it was as if we’d forgotten why we were there. We’d become the establishment. We’d stopped transforming the country. We were now merely managers of the system. We were managing the economic crisis and the global terrorist threat – pretty well, most fair minded people would concede. But only Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho would get elected for being good managers.

Because of this atmosphere of denial, and political narcissism, those within the orbit of Labour with any influence on the younger Miliband will tend to push him towards the right-wing (if he needs any prompting). The only proviso is that the party manouvers itself to the left of the coalition, no matter how slightly, on spending.

In the world of Westminster politics, these men – who are so out of touch with social conditions in the country – exist in an imaginary community where “left” is well to the right of even Harold MacMillan. Miliband is a comfortable citizen of this community, ensconced and self-satisfied (who was happy to be liberally whipped as a back-bencher on any issue that Blair/Brown decreed). There is no chance that a Labour Party under such a figure could begin to address the needs of the British people. Sadly, that might involve taking “the populist route of opposing all cuts to public spending” (Hain, again).

I can’t really see much place for the Left within the Labour Party as it stands. The party itself is deeply divided, with those broadly representing the working class (or at the least keen to appeal to working class voters) and those who fetishise “middle England” (like Ed) and see in the travails of buy-to-let owners and parents of students the primary social tragedy of our time (or at least the only one worth talking about in his first speech as Labour leader).

For the millions of people left faithless and betrayed by New Labour, and not likely to flock back either, it might be better to take Peter Hain at his word and “stand shoulder to shoulder with our local communities, with trade unionists, with faith groups, with charities, with voluntary organisations, to lead a great peoples movement for change against this right wing government.”

It’s just that when any such movement arises – regardless of who the Labour leader is – it will have to remain aloof from a party that nobody trusts, few agree with or respect, and deals for the most part in cheap hypocrisies, existing in a continual state of rebranding – utterly detached from the lives of ordinary people.

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