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Ed Miliband

Image: The Guardian

The prospect of Miliband’s recent rise in popularity climaxing with Cameron's ejection from Number 10 should be welcomed on the left argues Sean Ledwith

A few months ago the chances of Ed Miliband standing on the steps of Number 10 sometime in May, waving to cheering crowds as newly-elected Prime Minister might have been regarded with scepticism by even his most dedicated supporters. At the end of last year, Miliband’s approval rating had slumped to an all-time low of -55 points, even worse than Nick Clegg!

Tory election strategists were clearly counting on Miliband’s low personal polling as one of the central planks of their campaign. Team Cameron evidently believed photos of Miliband battling with a bacon buttie or staring blankly into space would be enough to deliver their man a second term. Hence the recent signs of desperation among the Tory high command   as it has become apparent an excessive focus on Miliband’s personality is actually counter-productive. According to most pundits, the Labour Leader has run a surprisingly effective campaign and, although not clearly ahead, is certainly in a promising position as polling day approaches.

Explaining the resilience of the Labour vote in the face of a predominantly hostile media cannot be explained simply by examining the tactical minutiae of the Miliband campaign alone; the real prospect of a Labour dominated -government has to be seen in the context of the persistent unpopularity of the austerity agenda among the working class.

The other issue arising from the current situation is that after five years of reheated Thatcherism, maybe we should expect Labour to be further ahead and on course for a decisive parliamentary majority. The fact that this is not the case can be attributed to the lack of clear ideological direction offered by Miliband since taking over as leader and the uncertain and contradictory approach with which he has addressed the legacy of Labour’s embrace of neoliberalism under Blair and Brown.

WTF One Nation Labour?

Miliband’s victory over brother David in the leadership election of 2010 was widely interpreted within the party as a decisive rejection of the Blair agenda. The right-wing press’ feeble attempt to label him as ‘Red Ed’ has always been unconvincing to everyone but themselves but there was no doubt Ed’s explicit criticism of the Iraq war, among other positions, put clear political  water between himself and his brother, who had made no secret of his pitch as the continuity candidate. Since then, however, the winning brother has struggled to articulate a coherent ideological vision that resonates with Labour voters who want to see the party back in power but not a re-run of the Blair years.

Two years into his leadership, Miliband launched ‘One Nation Labour’ as his attempt to re-brand the party and to counterpose his version to Blair’s New Labour. Explicitly drawing on the phraseology of a nineteenth-century Tory Prime Minister, Miliband intended this to mark his alternative to what has increasingly appeared to be a government of the elite for the elite.  In the current campaign however, this slogan has been conspicuously absent from Labour events, indicating it has probably been gently consigned to the dustbin of failed spin.  One Labour MP eloquently expressed the views of many in the party on the value of the slogan:

It’s not understood, and I can’t see why you’d adopt it. I mean, they trialled it out to receive any reaction from people, and just a blank, open mouthed ‘huh?’ was the best you could get... ‘We are One Nation’? And what the fuck does that mean?

Miliband’s efforts to present the party as now fiscally responsible as opposed to the supposedly borrow and spend model of previous eras has also been one of the least appealing aspects of his leadership. The 2015 manifesto contains a commitment to adhere to the spending plans of Cameron’s Coalition for the first year and to eliminate the deficit by the end of the next Parliament. In effect, that still means cuts across most unprotected government departments of up to 1.4% and an acceptance of the neoliberal dogma that austerity is the route out of recession.

Four Shades of Labour

This reluctance to break away from Blair's embrace of the market reflects the insidious influence of the so-called Black Labour faction within the party. This is one of the four colour-coded ideological positions that have competed for hegemony within the party since Miliband's accession to the leadership. The core of this perspective is that Labour needs to explicitly commit itself to austerity if the party is to regain electoral credibility.

The influence of this message can be detected in Shadow Chancellor's Ed Balls’ comment after George Osborne's last budget in March that he would not reverse any of the latter's spending cuts; a lamentable failure to perform the basic function of the official opposition that caused astonishment and dismay in many quarters, especially as Osborne's plans are widely perceived to be lining up the most savage reduction in public spending since the 1930s.

What the Black Labour faction fail to comprehend is that the punishing attacks by the coalition over the past five years have pushed significant chunks of public opinion to the left and discredited the premise of austerity in the eyes of many, most directly among working class voters who are bearing the brunt of the economic offensive. A poll published in the Financial Times at the end of last year indicated only two out every five respondents believed spending cuts was the way to pursue deficit reduction. There was widespread support for the idea that public services had suffered enough and savings should be sought elsewhere.

The Black Labour message is utterly wrong-headed as Miliband's fragile but conspicuous rise in the polls is emphatically not based on public appetite for a mildly less bitter dose of austerity. Instead, it can largely be attributed to rising outrage at the levels of inequality presided over by neoliberalism’s A Team. Despite the number of billionaires in the UK doubling since the onset of recession, there are 1.5 million pensioners on the poverty line and nearly 100,000 children in temporary accommodation. These and similar statistics are the forces pushing Miliband to the brink of power.

The possible future Prime Minister may have failed to provide consistent leadership on inequality but others, including high-profile figures such as Russell Brand and Owen Jones, have sustained the backlash against increasingly isolated corporate elite. Miliband’s agreement to be interviewed by the former days before the election indicates he has belatedly realised this!

It’s Not Immigration, Stupid

One of the other colour-coded versions of the party, Blue Labour, is responsible for another of Miliband’s misconstrued initiatives that have failed to acquire political traction. This  wing of the party have tried to promote the idea that the main reason Blair and Brown haemorrhaged nearly 5 million voters after 1997 was not the Iraq war or the lax  attitude to bank regulation but the unpopularity of immigration. Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, and peer Lord Glassman are two of the best-known adherents of this perspective.

Blue Labour argues the rise of Ukip is explicable in terms of Labour alienating its own working class base thanks to the significant rise in EU immigration in the early years of this century. Aside from awful pandering to racism, this notion also fails to recognise the compelling evidence that most of the Ukip vote comes from disgruntled Tory voters who would never consider voting Labour and, as such, represents a greater threat to Cameron in the current situation.

Polling earlier this year indicated immigration was on a downward trajectory as an issue of importance for most voters and was being easily overtaken by the NHS. Despite this, Miliband has failed to clearly taken on the racist rhetoric pushed by the Daily Express and Mail. The 2015 manifesto contains a commitment to force all migrants to the UK to speak English (a measure that ironically might have obstructed Miliband’s own grandparents fleeing the Holocaust)

Equally pernicious, the party hierarchy recently condoned an official election mug bearing a moniker that would have been more suitable for Farage’s rabble: 'Controls on immigration - I Am Voting Labour'. Radical musician Billy Bragg has identified the fallacy that guides the ideas of Blue Labour:

'For many, the problem with New Labour was that it was already too blue – too pro-market – to be believable when it went looking for support among traditional voters. Yes, 4 million working-class votes were lost, but not to the Tories. The majority of them simply sat on their hands, no longer willing to support New Labour, yet unable to bring themselves to support someone else.'

Blairism bites back

A third variation of Labour thinking, the Purple variety, is based on unreconstructed Blairism and the notion that the key to regaining power is to distance the party as far as possible from the trade unions, in the style of Blair’s ditching of the Clause 4 commitment to nationalisation in the mid-1990s. This faction is particularly influential among many current Labour MPs - the component of the party that conspicuously voted for David Miliband in the 2010 leadership election. Ed’s victory at that point was primarily based on the support of the grassroots membership, made up overwhelmingly of trade union members. The core of Purple Labour resides in the Progress faction of the party, which contains key members of the Shadow Cabinet such as Tristram Hunt and Rachel Reeves. The mind-set of this Blairite rump was horribly revealed a few weeks ago when the latter expressed her contempt for some of the most exploited sections of society:

'We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work ….Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.'

Reeves’ language in this case was a crude and shocking attempt to ape George Osborne’s divisive talk of ‘workers’ and ‘shirkers’. Likewise, Tristram Hunt as Shadow Education Secretary has failed to coherently attack the disastrous legacy of Michael Gove and is hamstrung by his own party’s legacy of initiating the academies programme under Blair. Last year Hunt displayed the typically Blairite distrust of the state sector with his ludicrous call for teachers to be compelled to make an oath of allegiance to the values  of education- implying they obviously don’t care about them at the moment!

Red Labour and beyond

Of the various strands of party thinking, it is so-called Red Labour that comes closest to identifying the main reason Miliband has enjoyed frequent spikes of popularity since 2010 and is now on course to genuinely challenge Cameron for power. The authors of the Red Book that marked the foundation of this tendency stated their viewpoint on where Miliband should take the party:

We aim to intellectually reclaim what it means to be left and we wish to help Ed Miliband steer a course away from Neo-Liberalism. It is clear from the surge in new members, especially younger ones since the General Election in 2010, that there is an appetite for socialist policies that tame the excesses of capitalism and re-balance the UK economy in a way that is fairer to the have-nots

The fundamental feature of the current situation that is grasped by this version of Labour thinking is that Miliband has been at his most effective and popular on those occasions when he has been perceived to confront the entrenched interests of the establishment. In 2012, Cameron confidentially complained that the Labour Leader had him on the run over his links to the Murdoch empire. The following year, Miliband saw his ratings revive after his commitment to freeze the prices of the Big Six energy companies. Also in 2013, he scuppered Cameron’s warmongering posture over Syria and faced down the Daily Mail over its calumnious attacks on his father, Ralph.

The flaw in the Red Labour perspective, however, is that although these stands against the institutions of the elite have been notable, they have not been consistent and Miliband remains hamstrung by the regressive elements within the party, namely those organised around the Black, Blue and Purple labels. The party’s ongoing commitments to some supposedly milder version of austerity, the profligate Trident system and the union with Scotland have provoked the huge leakage of support to the SNP.

Nicola Sturgeon’s party is set for an almost clean sweep of seats north of the border, denying Miliband the prospect of a majority government in the process. Nevertheless, the prospect of Miliband’s recent rise in popularity climaxing with the ejection of Cameron from Number 10 is one that should be welcomed on the left. Progressive forces inside and outside the party will be energised and can potentially come together to construct a common project to challenge the elite, not just inside the Westminster bubble but on the streets and in the communities of the whole country.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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