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Ed Mililband

Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Observer

Alastair Stephens looks at the background to the whispering campaign against Labour leader Ed Miliband

The whispering campaign in the Labour party against Ed Miliband has now become quite audible. The media has been full of stories about how the party apparently wants shot of Ed Miliband. The Guardian, for instance, reported that one (anonymous) MP reckons two thirds of the party would be happy for him to go (Two thirds of what though? The parliamentary party? The MPs and MEPs who had preferred his Dave over Ed in the 2010 leadership election?)

To be so critical of the party leader, and so publicly, just six months away from a general election, seems like tempting electoral disaster. As Miliband's campaign head Douglas Alexander noted, divided parties tend to loose elections.

If anything it has been the Tories who are looking like the divided party as they suffer both a relapse into their old illness of division on Europe, and a new malady as they hemorrhage votes to Ukip.

And its not as if Labour is staring defeat in the face. This is not the party in 1983, or the Tory party in 1997, 2001 or 2005 for that.

The election is winnable as long as they hold their nerve.

Campaign against Ed

Shadow health minister Andy Burnham (himself accused of plotting against Miliband) denounced the rumour-mongering to Channel 5 News as "a deliberate attempt to destabilise the Labour Party in the run-up to the general election."

It might well be, and the miscreants are not so much the media as those within the Labour party who still hanker after the prince over the water, Dave Miliband, and the true Blairite succession.

The media, and the Murdoch empire in particular, may be ramping up a campaign to monster Ed Miliband, but on this occasion the material has been provided, as it has been for a while, by errant Labourites. Plenty seem to be willing to speak off the record to run Ed down.

This is not a new campaign, pre-election nerves. It has been building for a while.

Their whispering has agitated a large part of the party who think that Ed simply doesn't have what it takes. 

And this doesn't mean being too weird looking, or not ruthless enough. At root this means too left-wing and not sufficiently neoliberal. 

There are those on the right of the party who would rather lose with Miliband as leader than win. They just do not want to be seen to be the cause if they lose. They want him to take the blame and his tilt to the left (weak as it is) to be discredited and renounced.

Miliband - Kinnock - Foot

This is not the first such criticism of Miliband. People on the right of the party have consistently talked of Labour losing for a while. 

There were suggestions at the start of the summer that if (when?) Labour loses the election that he should resign immediately, and not try and stay on for a second go, as Neil Kinnock did. 

Then Charles Clarke, one of Blair's "Big Beasts”, and long with a license to say what other (Blairites) think, piped up that Kinnock was a much superior leader to Miliband

Kinnock is an odd hero for the right - who laud "winners" - having lost two general elections. But he did, as they see it, rescue the party from the grip of the "loony left" and trade union militants after the electoral disaster of 1983 when the party only narrowly avoided being beaten into third place by the rising SDP/Liberal Alliance.

And it is the then party leader, Michael Foot, whom they see in Miliband. 

Foot was a veteran Labour figure, had made his name in World War Two as a campaigning journalist, most famously as one of the writers behind the pseudonymous Cato, who wrote the attack on the Guilty Men who had appeased Hitler. Catching the mood it sold out in days.

But that had been forty years previous to his election as leader in 1980 following the defeat of Jim Callaghan's government in 1979. 

Campaign of vilification

Foot was attacked relentlessly by the media as being a rabid left-winger, and a peacenik, allegations which in general weren't true. Though on the moral left of the party he was the scion of a dynasty of West Country Liberals - his grandfather had been MP for Bodmin. He was no pacifist. He had been a campaigning journalist and propagandist in World War Two, had backed Thatcher's imperial advantage in the Falklands war, and would later in the 1990s call for military intervention in the former Yugoslavia. 

The media monstering of Foot peaked during the 1983 election campaign in which another target was the party’s manifesto (and for which he bore some responsibility). Often described as “loony left” it contained many policies that have either been implemented (minimum wage, tighter control of banks, ban on fox hunting) or are now widely accepted as desirable if not yet implemented (abolition of the House of Lords).

But it was hardly a popular read. It was voluminous and contained all the policies passed by the party conference. At more than 20,000 words it was twice as long as manifestos used to be (now they barely seem to matter).

There were those on the right of the party who were all too happy for everything to be put into the manifesto, an obvious PR disaster waiting to happen, so that when the looming defeat arrived the lot would be discredited together.

The reasons for Labour's defeat in 1983 were many and complex, but the determination of the right too blame it on the party's left wing policies were summed up in Gerald Kaufmann's acid comment that the manifesto had been "the longest suicide note in history", a quote that will probably live on long after both Kaufman and the manifesto have been forgotten.

Unfinished revolution

In Milliband the right see a new Foot. A left-winger lost in the past who is trying to take the party off the true path set for it by Blair.

They also see a weak leader who is under the sway of the union barons that voted him into the leadership against their favourite, Dave Miliband.

They would rather loose the election, bring down Milliband and complete Blair's unfinished revolution.

Thus they would also avoid having to implement the austerity policies which they agree with, but which they know attack the electoral base of the Labour Party. 

The pain that the working class supporters of the party will go through, and the fundamental changes to our society that they bring in, is just part of living in a globalised world as far as they are concerned.

Neoliberalism, the right of the party believe, is inevitable, the price to be paid for maintaining position in the world market. 

Their version of social democracy, social-liberalism involves sugaring the pill of neoliberalism with public spending, but sugar is, as far as they are concerned, in short supply at the moment.

Better to let the Tories take the hit, so that Labour can take the power next time when austerity is coming to an end and growth has been restored.

But Foot was a looser. If Ed wins the right see him morphing into François Hollande. They fear he will raise people's expectations only to dash them, having to acknowledge the "reality" which they see as the  need to implement austerity and more neoliberal 'reform'. 

The result they foresee is a terrible backlash from the union “barons” who he has nurtured rather than challenged. The French Socialist Party is indeed enduring such a backlash at present.

Which way forward?

The Blarites believe that defeat will usher in the final transformation of the Labour Party and the remaking of the British political scene.

Many of them would like to end the rift between Social Democracy and Liberalism, created by Labour's break with the Liberal Party (something publicly lamented by Blair) and engineer the reinvention of Labour as a broad “progressive party aligned to both big business and a “cooperative trade union movement.

The battle is on for the very soul of the Labour Party, the outcome of which, in the growing instability of British politics, is still uncertain.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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