“Without values we become managers and technocrats”, writes Ed Miliband in his Labour Leadership essay for the Fabian Society, indirectly attacking the prevailing view that the downfall of the New Labour project was its hollowing out of ideals, its growing distance from those it was necessary for it to represent. Then, after becoming leader, Miliband opened his speech as follows: “Conference, I stand here today ready to lead: a new generation now leading Labour. Be in no doubt. The new generation of Labour is different. Different attitudes, different ideas, different ways of doing politics.”
An obvious question has already been raised: different from what? New Labour? Tony Blair, and Brown, also? Further, how different from the Labour Party that Brown and Blair’s leadership looked to move away away from?
Well, pre-leadership victory, Miliband’s possibly more left-wing approach in the Fabian Society leadership pamphlet gave some indication as to the area in which Ed’s Labour Party would strike: “Between 1997 and 2010, for every one voter that Labour lost from the professional classes (so called ‘ABs’), we lost three voters among the poorest, those on benefits and the low paid (DEs). You really don’t need to be a Bennite to believe that this represents a crisis of working-class representation for Labour – and our electability.”
No, you do not need to be a Bennite. You do not need to be particularly anti-New Labour, either: as leader of the opposition Blair respectively commented, “We are on the side of ordinary people against privilege, against vested interests of the public or private sector…”, and that, as a progressive and a champion of social justice, and because he was a downright working class chap who liked football and beer, rather bizarrely and ambiguously stated that he knew “exactly what the British people feel when they see the Queen’s head on a £10 note. I feel it too.”, which would imply that, largely, Tony and Gordon (et al.) have taught the new Labour leader how to sing and from which hymn sheet.
The success of the new Labour Party leader, then, will lie in an ability to do what New Labour did well while also claiming that he is not New Labour, all at once; he’ll have to regain the working class ‘DE’ vote, first off, and then not lose it.
Old Battles, New Politics: New Battles, Old Politics
How do you be something you are, but show that it’s something you’re not?
Very early in his campaign, Miliband made it quite clear that, while New Labour’s successes should not be forgotten (“We can neither win an election with a working-class vote alone – New Labour was right about that – nor can we take it for granted”) it was important that a new generation’s ideals were set very firmly against that at which they failed. To that end, early indications of Miliband-era Labour policy include:
- Renewed trade union support; “The crisis of support among our working-class base shows the ground we have to make up. The relationship with the trade union movement needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.”
- Support for the Alternative Vote; “we need to reform our House of Commons and I support changing our voting system and will vote yes in the referendum on AV.”
- Siding with the poor, against the rich; “I say the people who caused the crisis and can afford to do more should do more: with a higher bank levy allowing us to do more to protect the services and entitlements on which families depend”.
- Greater market regulation; “We have to challenge the old thinking that flexible labour markets are always the answer. Employers should not be allowed to exploit migrant labour in order to undercut wages. And if we have free movement of labour across Europe we need proper labour standards in our economy, including real protection for agency workers.”
- Increase on the National Minimum Wage; “I believe in not just a minimum wage but the foundation of our economy in the future must be a living wage too.”
What we find, then, is that Ed Miliband intends to build on New Labour’s successes whilst forging something ever ‘new’, based on pre-New Labour policies such as stricter market regulation and support for trade unions; he has been very careful, both in his leadership campaign and in his first week as leader, to show that he isn’t afraid to let his heart rule his head, and that he isn’t afraid to bypass the developments of thirteen years in power in order to get to those areas of policy that Blair and Brown’s governments are largely perceived to have gotten wrong.
Indeed, with open support of the trade unions – not to mention their support of him, as has been much publicised – and with support for AV and greater market regulations, Miliband’s message seems to be ‘let’s reclaim some of the idealism that the Labour movement lost; let’s not be afraid to be a party of the left’; true, he’s no Bennite but he certainly isn’t a Blairite, either, and the former PM’s assertion that “I always took the view that if we departed a millimetre from New Labour, we were going to be in trouble” has been comprehensively rejected, leaving the Labour Party with a leader who, while no Atlee, Bevan, Foot or Benn – he is not even remotely as ‘left’, it is fair to say, as current MPs John Denham, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell – is far more willing to speak to a ‘left-wing’ audience than the party’s last two leaders, and perhaps also, the last four. Compared with Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Blair and Brown, indeed, Miliband seems a little like the new kid in class when situated next to the more widely party-endorsed leadership candidate and previous heir apparent, his brother David.
Not New Labour, Not Red Either
A victory for the ‘left’ then: case closed.
If only it were that simple; Tony Blair, for all his possible wrongs, taught the UK one thing, that political winners shouldn’t be flag bearers. Indeed, a number of qualifiers, regarding both people and policy, have rather complicated Miliband’s position as a ‘new generation’ politician who is ‘getting back to core values’ but is ‘not New Labour’.
First thing’s first: Ed Miliband is not, as far as he says, going to try and push Labour to its pre-New Labour days, and he is most certainly not a vehicle for trade unionism – “I am nobody’s man, I am my own man. I am very clear about that.” – nor a traditional socialist:
“I tell you this conference, our generation must find a new way of conducting politics. And that brings me to some of the names I’ve been called…Wallace out of Wallace and Gromit… I gather some people can see the resemblance. Forrest Gump… Not so much, I think. And what about Red Ed? Come off it. Let’s start to have a grown-up debate in this country about who we are and where we want to go and what kind of country we want to build.”
Of course, he isn’t a New Labourite either, or so’s the line.
Currently, Ed Miliband has a very difficult balancing act on his hands: he cannot desert New Labour altogether – he would presumably argue that he wouldn’t want to, but more practically he cannot risk losing the support of a large proportion of the party elite – but he cannot be seen to be taking the Labour movement back to the a point at which it might be called that now dirty word, ‘socialist’. Presumably that is why in his Labour Leadership essay for the Fabian Society he argued that the trade unions needed more support, then in his leadership election speech he made it quite clear that “We [New Labour] took on the idea that there was a public ownership solution to every problem our society faced. We changed Clause 4. We were right to do so.”, and why he is careful to argue that – while arguing for a higher banking levy, a living wage of £7 per hour, and greater market regulation – “the gap between rich and poor does matter. It doesn’t just harm the poor it harms us all.”
In the coming months, then, Ed Miliband must show his party and the public that he is certainly not New Labour, but he is also not not-New Labour, either. It seems that he is caught thoroughly between a Foot and a Brown place, and this is why the former Brownite turned New-Labour-denouncer-but-New-Labour-supporter will have a testing first few months as leader of the opposition, but also why he seems to be the boldest and the most exciting choice for Labour leadership at the current time: if it was once true that “the role of the Labour leader is to protect the country from the views of the members of he Labour Party”, but that those party members had some progressive, radical and exciting ideas that previous Labour leaders feared might be too damaging if heard unchecked, and if it is true that the New Labour project was one that taught the Labour Party how to win and maintain power but not to deliver on what it has always done so well, namely act as a progressive socialist moral compass and as a vehicle for parity and equality, then the obvious and pressing task for the next stage of the Labour movement is one that can reconcile these two admirable but one-dimensional and ultimately flawed extremes.
The Labour Party: A Party of Government, A Party of Ideals
‘New-New Labour’, then, as stupid as it sounds, isn’t so wide of the mark: if New Labour lacked a left-wing conscience and so-called Old Labour lacked the necessary instruments for power, if New Labour promised and delivered less and Old Labour promised much but had no chance to deliver, then something that can draw on both traditions – more ‘left’ than the New Labour years, but a little ‘softer’ than the party that lost popularity at an alarming rate after the fall of James Callaghan’s government in 1979 – would surely render, in one way or another, both projects complete.
In other words, if Ed Miliband can unite the UK under a banner of ideals – and stick to them – while also maintaining power, it would seem that Labour’s vision of being “a party of government” (Blair) and yet of forging “a socialist society where a man feels that he is working for the good of the community as a whole and for the communal good” (Callaghan) would represent a practical and ideological compromise that both previous Labour movement’s lacked.
A Marxist might call it dialectic. No doubt Blair might have called it the ‘fourth way’. The suspicion is that Ed Miliband would call it neither, and therein will lie his strength.
Whether that strength might turn to substance, though, will depend on the formation of a strong shadow cabinet – after all, a leader is but one – in which the values of the Labour movement (fairness, equality, social justice) might be propagated without too much dogma, as in the New Labour years, but with the substance of an ‘idea’ that those years, many would argue, sorely lacked.
To that end, as a benchmark of Ed Miliband’s commitment to fairness and equality, and to social justice, to performing in deed what he is willing to pour forth in words, it is worth noting that in his Labour Leadership essay, Miliband wrote that “Cultural change has to start at the top, which is why I want a 50-50 gender balance in the shadow cabinet.
The real test begins next week then, when shadow cabinet nominations are closed and Mr. Miliband’s choice of Cabinet will say something of the man’s character, not least his intentions.