IT used to be that Labour came in only one colour: red.
Not any more. In today’s multicoloured political marketplace, you can opt for Blue Labour (a kind of Tory Labour), and also Purple Labour, promoted by post-Blairite modernisers. There will no doubt be a whole rainbow of colours at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this week – environmental green, liberal yellow and black from the anarchist fringe. Some might argue that there is also Tartan Labour following the Murphy review, which has given the Scottish party a greater sense of its own identity. And, of course, there is still Brown Labour – composed of die-hard supporters of the former prime minister, such as the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls and his wife, Yvette Cooper MP.
Labour’s colour revolution is a sign that the party is trying to grapple with the fundamentals, but it is also an indication of ideological turmoil and deep political insecurity in a party which is uncertain of its leadership, confused about its values and lacking confidence in the future. Exactly one year after Ed Miliband was elected party leader, the Blue Labour episode pretty much sums up the problem. It was the brainchild of Maurice Glasman, a politics lecturer at London Metropolitan University.
Glasman wanted to reconnect Labour with its origins among patriotic, Christian working-class communities by focusing unashamedly on the reactionary-sounding themes of “faith, family and flag”. He wanted to create the kind of Labour Party favoured by people like the Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy, whom Gordon Brown was overheard calling a “bigoted woman” after she tackled him on immigration and crime during last year’s General Election campaign.
Blue Labour aroused a great deal of interest in political magazines like the New Statesman and Prospect and among a number of prominent Labour politicians such as Jon Cruddas, the former deputy leadership contender. Unfortunately, Glasman sought to base his appeal to conservative Labour supporters primarily on immigration, which he said should be halted, at least for a time. When Glasman also urged Labour to have a dialogue with the English Defence League, and suggested that Labour had become too feminist, there was an almighty row. In July, Blue Labour was effectively laid to rest, as its supporters disowned its leader and Glasman promised to observe an indefinite vow of silence.
Glasman was a key adviser to the party leader. He attended Miliband’s Sunday afternoon “thinking strategy” meetings, along with people like Neal Lawson of the left-wing Compass group, and Guardian writer John Harris. (In February, he was actually ennobled by Miliband as Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington.) All this political soul-searching was part of an attempt by the Labour leader to understand how the party has become disconnected from its grassroots support, as part of his “Refounding Labour” project.
Blue Labour pointed to an inconvenient truth about the last election, namely that many, perhaps most, Labour supporters – 76% according to one poll – want controls placed on immigration. Ed Balls, the former chancellor, admitted as much when he said that Labour had failed to take seriously the impact of immigration on the wages of some working people. But immigration is Labour’s Pandora’s Box – not to be touched. The authors of the rival Purple Book, notably the former deputy prime minister, Peter Mandelson, were gleefully scathing about Blue Labour’s anti-immigration and anti-European rhetoric.
The Purple people are modernisers who want to keep the essence of Blairism – opposition to the big state, public-sector reform, choice etc – without the unfortunate political bling that went along with it. They include a number of Ed Miliband’s front-bench team, including Douglas Alexander and Caroline Flint, who accept that New Labour was uncritical of the City of London and didn’t pay enough attention to the concerns of ordinary people, but fear that any return to high taxation and state controls would take Labour even further from electability. Purple people have invented the “conservatory test”, which is supposed to determine whether or not politicians are in touch with the aspirations of their would-be supporters. If you don’t understand why people want conservatories, you don’t understand modern politics.
Red Book people think conservatories are where right-wing politicians come from. Not to be confused with Gordon Brown’s 1978 book of the same name, the Red Bookers are a small but influential group on the Labour left led by Eoin Barry Clarke, editor of the website Green Benches, who wants a return to “ethical socialism”. Contributors to the Red Book, which is being launched in Liverpool this week, include the former Tribune editor Mark Seddon, and Scotland’s former deputy first minister, Cathy Jamieson. They want to see banks mutualised, Trident abolished and neoliberalism rejected in favour of income re-distribution and job creation. They overlap with the Compass group of left-liberal Labour people led by Neal Lawson and Baroness Helena Kennedy.
OK, that’s enough colours. But it’s a hard job keeping abreast of the various currents of post-New Labour thinking. You can’t help being reminded of the old Trotskyite left, which spent most of its time and energy splitting into new factions and denouncing former comrades. According to Compass’s Lawson, however, this proliferation of Labour hues is not a sign of fragmentation. “Blairism was all about herding everyone into one big Labour tent,” he insists. “Labour is now a campsite with lots of little tents.”
I’m not sure this is quite the image Labour wants to present, since it suggests the party is all over the place. One imagines boy scout Ed wandering from tent to tent trying to pick up badges along the way but never quite becoming leader of the troop. A major criticism of Ed Miliband is that he has failed to define himself politically. Is he fundamentally of the left? He said New Labour was finished and that Tony Blair was wrong over Iraq. He apologised for his predecessor’s failure to control the greed of the city of London. Miliband has severed New Labour’s unhealthy relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s Sun. He refused to be drawn into the Tory attack on “feral” youth, calling for a social rather than a purely punitive response to the riots.
But it is very hard to see Ed Miliband as a left-winger in any traditional sense. He refuses to back the wave of public-sector strikes scheduled for November. Issues such as Trident and high taxation don’t interest him. He has made efforts to dilute the trades union vote in the election of the Labour leader, which ironically helped him beat his brother David in 2010.
Ed Miliband sounds a bit like a left-wing Liberal Democrat. He shared a platform with the LibDems in the referendum campaign on the Alternative Vote, and he has appealed to disillusioned LibDems to jump ship.
This is the problem for Labour. It no longer understands its grassroots base and has yet to fashion a form of radical politics that is different both from Blairism and Liberalism. Labour’s identity problem is connected to the loss of its mass membership – it has lost half its members since 1997. The trades unions still exert disproportionate influence at party conference even though the TUC no longer represents most working people, being largely confined to the public sector. Labour is constantly in danger of being dismissed as the paid representative of a narrow vested interest; of being, as Nick Clegg said last week, “in the pockets” of the unions.
But in Parliament, Labour looks nothing like a party of the workers. The front bench at Prime Minister’s Questions – Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy – are all products of the party career structure or political journalism and it is hard to imagine many of the great Labour statesmen of the past – a Bevan or a Bevin – sitting alongside them.
The Labour Shadow Cabinet lacks a distinct theme and under Miliband, it has made very little impact over the past year, despite the opportunities presented by the economic and social turmoil. Some have disappeared without trace – even I hadn’t heard of the Shadow Health Secretary, John Healey, until I looked him up. Ed Balls is the most vocal member of Miliband’s team but he is mistrusted by his leader, partly because he wants his job and partly because Balls sounds like a Brown “deficit-denier”.
Not surprisingly, Labour is in the electoral doldrums. The party was almost destroyed by the SNP in the Scottish Parliament elections, and it lost the argument and the vote in the AV referendum. Labour is still ahead in the polls, but only by a few points, and shockingly the Tories lead on economic competence, even in the midst of economic malaise. Cameron is still regarded as the better leader by voters, with Ed Miliband ranging in unpopularity from minus 17 to minus seven in a good month. More than half of Labour voters don’t believe Ed Miliband will ever be Prime Minister. This is not good.
The balance of political power in Scotland stands as a dire warning to Labour in the UK. If the party doesn’t get its act together, then others will. The party has no divine right to return to office. Given Britain’s current political and economic situation, Labour really should be on the way back to Government in the UK by now. Things are looking bad for the Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, with unemployment rising and public borrowing actually increasing, despite the cuts, to £16 billion in August – the worst for that month on record. The party conferences are alive with rumours that the Government is going to have to put its deficit reduction on hold because the private sector has failed to supply jobs to replace those lost through public-sector cuts.
This is an unmissable opportunity for Labour. It has the chance, not only to connect with the working-class base, but to claim the moral and economic high ground. Ed Miliband always said that the Tory cuts were “too deep and too fast”, and this is being vindicated. Moreover, the public is furious at the failure of the Coalition Government to rein in the banks and halt bonuses and huge salaries. Opinion polls and focus groups indicate that there is a widespread moral revulsion at the greed-is-good society that has been allowed to flourish in Britain over the last 30 years. The truth is that British voters were never very happy with financial capitalism, regarding it as a necessary evil to promote economic prosperity.
Well, now they are seeing things very differently as wages fall in real terms across the middle classes, while those at the top continue to rob society of its wealth. There are a million young people unemployed in Britain; young families can’t afford homes or the high rents of buy-to-let landlords; pensions and savings are being destroyed by inflation and a parasitic financial services industry; personal indebtedness has risen to £1.4 trillion – higher than annual GDP. It is clear from the gloomy forecasts of organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, that the world economy is falling back into recession.
We appear to be entering a modern equivalent of the Great Depression, and while it won’t be exactly like the 1930s – the world is a much richer place – there will still be economic dislocation and social unrest. We can already see the beginnings of protectionism, currency wars and international friction that could lead rapidly to conflict. As in the 1930s, the crisis will need positive leadership, Government intervention and a willingness to challenge the power of wealth – as well as a commitment to international co-operation to achieve fairness and curb economic nationalism.
If Labour can’t make political capital out of all this, it doesn’t deserve to be called a social democratic party. It has a clear field too on the centre left, since the Liberal Democrats have entered their death embrace with the Tories. Yet last week the economic commentator, Will Hutton said it was LibDem Vince Cable, not Labour, who is making the running on banking reform. This should be the moment for a historic re-framing of British politics – away from the neoliberal free-market assumptions of the past and towards a more equal society based on progressive taxation and sound public services; away from the malign influence of press barons like Rupert Murdoch and towards the open and free society of information promised by the internet and social media.
These are all classic Labour themes. The Conservative Government, populated by ex-public schoolboys, looks and sounds out of touch, even with Cameron’s populist PR skills. They have also had the misfortune to be elected just as the real crisis was about to hit. Somehow, Ed Miliband must abandon the “narcissism of small differences”, nail all of Labour’s colours together on the same mast, and make a great over-arching moral case for a modern equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal in America. But to do this requires a leader with vision, courage, passion and an ability to connect. Unfortunately, at this turning point in history, the Labour leader possesses none of these qualities. If he can’t acquire them, then it will be the worse for all of us, as the bankers implement their own solution to the crisis, and the nations of the world turn nasty.
After a year at the helm of Labour, what do Ed Miliband
and his party stand for?
By Iain Macwhirter
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