Miliband’s recent statements may make Labour a bit more attractive to some, but they have also opened up greater opportunities for the left to mobilise argues Lindsey German
Ed Miliband spent the summer in the political doldrums, beset with arguments over trade union funding, his low personal popularity ratings and a series of nasty attacks from the Blairites in the shadow cabinet, unable to forgive him for beating his brother to become leader three years ago.
It all looks rather different now. In the last few weeks Miliband has made a political comeback by - shock horror - actually opposing the Coalition Government’s policies, and has found it has done him no harm at all. The value of opposing the unpopular Tories and their miserable Liberal Democrat allies should hardly be in question for Labour. But up until now there has been little to break the cosy parliamentary consensus between the main parties.
But the summer changed that. First there was the vote on Syria: Miliband’s refusal to back a hastily called vote in August for Britain to join in an air strike on Syria marked a turning point. Labour found that this was immensely popular with public opinion, strongly anti war for over a decade now. It also forced Obama to take the US decision to Congress, and the likely defeat there led to a pulling back from direct intervention.
Then there was Miliband’s very mild pledge to freeze energy prices for 20 months if he gets elected in 2015. The energy companies and their Tory and media supporters reacted with predictable fury to any curtailment on their profits. But it raised the question of some control over the major companies, and began in however small a way to challenge the view that there is no alternative to the neoliberal consensus.
The third and perhaps most surprising feature of Miliband’s political position was his decision to stand up to the Daily mail over its disgusting article about his late father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband. The Mail’s intransigence, and its reporter’s gate crashing of a memorial service for his uncle, led to a clear majority in a poll last weekend calling for the Mail to apologise.
What all this adds up to is not just the growing sense among labour that it needs a clear set of policies that differentiate themselves from the Tories. It also demonstrates that there are signs of fracture in the establishment political consensus that has dominated for so long.
For more than a decade now polls have shown the mass of working people have attitudes to the left of the mainstream parties on a range of issues. This is true over supporting nationalisation and opposing privatisation, opposition to war, wanting a fully funded NHS, and wanting to reduce inequality. So there has been a substantial mismatch between popular attitudes and their political representation. Even the smallest opening up of this consensus has the effect of making even relatively minor differences look greater than they might otherwise have appeared.
The debate engendered by them also creates possibilities for left. For the first time in years, the mainstream media and wide sections of society are touching on ideological debates that have tended to be the preserve of small groups of people. So when Miliband is accused of trying to usher in socialism or even of being a closet Marxist, this raises the issue to a mass audience, in however distorted a way. The intransigence of the energy companies, and the Tories threat to privatise the Royal Mail, leads to discussion about nationalisation and public ownership.
There are many reasons to be sceptical about Miliband: the past record of Labour, its inability to deliver serious reforms in recent years, its commitment to a programme of austerity and war which does not differ in essentials from that of the Tories, its woeful position on immigration. Nor is Miliband offering a fundamental break with the Blairite past - he explicitly rejected his father’s brand of socialism many years ago and there is no reason to assume that he has changed his mind.
However, it is also wrong to behave as though nothing has changed, when it is clear that there is at least a perception of wider differences between the two main parties and this is likely to remain the case until the election in 2015. This means that some people who left labour over the war in Iraq may now think of rejoining, and that even the very limited reforms offered by Miliband may have some attraction, in the absence of any other left electoral alternative.
The wrong reaction is just to say, as some on the left do, that this is all reformism without understanding how to try to relate to it. This then becomes a self fulfilling prophesy, where reformism is always dominant and where small groups of revolutionaries are always incapable of challenging it other than in the most abstract terms.
Instead, we should understand that Miliband has moved in this direction firstly because polling has told him issues such as the energy companies or the war are deeply unpopular. He has reaped some personal and political benefit from standing up to Cameron over these issues. He also will notice the various protests on different issues, from the bedroom tax to the NHS demo in Manchester, and the growing level of discontent among traditional labour supporters on these and other issues.
Industrial struggle is also beginning to grow following the pensions dispute nearly two years ago. Hovis workers in Wigan have won in their battle over zero hours contracts, teachers are holding successful strikes and rallies over pay, fire-fighters are taking industrial action, and there is the possibility of a major conflict over pay in the NHS.
It is impossible to predict how political issues feed into industrial struggles, and there is often a complex relationship between the two, but it is likely that many workers will take heart from any clear water between the Tories and Labour. In any case, successful and militant strikes will also put pressure on Labour to remember that union members have a large number of grievances that they want resolved.
All of this underlines the importance of the united front in general - the working together of all those on the left in specific campaigns which if successful can advance working class interests - and of the People’s Assembly in particular.
The Assembly is having a great deal of success in creating a major unified anti austerity movement and has no doubt helped shape the political landscape among the left and trade unions. It needs to be built as an independent and democratic movement that can mobilise round in the run up to and beyond the elections.
While Miliband’s recent statements have made Labour a bit more attractive to some on the left, they have also opened up greater opportunities for the left to mobilise and to talk politics. It is understanding this contradiction, and acting upon it, which will be the test of socialists in the months to come.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December
- We have a world to win – election briefing Polling Day
- Ignore the naysayers and keep fighting – election briefing 11 December
- Lindsey German: don't underestimate how far we've come - video
- One nation or the one percent? - election briefing 10 December
- Ten points to remember before polling day – election briefing 9 December
- Antisemitism, politics, and voting Tory - election briefing 6 December