Can Ed Miliband’s Labour Challenge the Westminster Consensus?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, April 27th 2013

Ed Miliband does not have to seek out his troubles and much of it seems to come from his own side rather than from opponents.

This week Len McCluskey, head of Unite laid into Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander claiming that if Miliband listened to them, ‘he’ll be defeated’ and ‘cast into the dustbin of history’. Worse, George Galloway endorsed Miliband for PM, just the sort of thing to scare off marginal voters.

Labour’s poll ratings are on average 9% ahead of the Tories producing a predicted Commons majority of 96 seats, but most people think it should be further ahead at the moment.

The electoral system may aid Labour and hinder the Tories, but underneath the headline figures there is a lack of conviction in Labour. 66% of voters think Miliband isn’t ready to be PM with only 24% feeling that he is ready. Only 12% of the public thinks Labour are the most capable party to take tough decisions, while 48% think this of the Conservatives.

What does Labour stand for now many now ask? Miliband has called time on the New Labour era, but embraced something called ‘One Nation Labour’ which has delivered one brilliant conference speech, but has yet to be fleshed out into policy.

Miliband has time and again expressed his ambition of being an agenda-shifting politician following the example of Thatcher, shifting the centre ground, rather than being defined by it. But any details and staked out positions have been few.

Post-New Labour the party has identified the land Thatcher and Blair built as part of the problem, along with Anglo-American capitalism, but the interest in a more co-operative Germanic capitalism has not resulted in anything more than mood music.

Part of the problem is coming to terms with the legacy of New Labour. To many left-wingers New Labour was the creation of a coup d’état in which a reactionary quasi-Thatcherite elite destroyed the party’s progressive traditions. To some such as former party leader Neil Kinnock, Miliband’s election was a sign that ‘we’ve got our party back’ from such a group.

Yet New Labour’s genesis was a more nuanced one grounded in the long and slow erosion of socialist and social democratic thinking from 1945 onward. More recently, Labour under Kinnock and John Smith moved the party rightwards pre-Blair, focusing on making it respectable and unthreatening to Conservative voters and the City.

Then we come to Miliband’s search for a new mantra and ‘One Nation Labour’. This was clever positioning but translating it into policy and strategy has proven problematic. It seems to be trying to position Labour as a healer and unifier after the division of the coalition, but ‘One Nation Labour’ doesn’t seem to involve being bold and taking on the new vested interests who bust the economy in the first place.

Then there is the disunited kingdom. The UK operates with at least four different political systems, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland marching to an increasingly different beat to Westminster.

It is even more problematic than that for England which is increasingly divided into two nations. In Northern England, the Tories only hold 43 out of 158 seats, while in the South outside London Labour hold a mere ten seats out of 197.

New research from the Policy Exchange think tank ‘Northern Lights’ shows that voters in the south of England are now more worried about insecurity in comparison to aspiration faced as they are with the twin pressures of miniscule to non-existent wage rises and falling living standards; so there is an opportunity for Labour there.

There is behind all of this an even bigger question: who does Labour speak for? And what does it stand for? Previously that question was obvious: it was in the party’s name. Labour saw itself as the people’s party – the organised expression of working people.

That gave the party ballast and strength when trade unions were powerful and represented half the workforce, although it also often gave it headaches when in office as ‘In Place of Strife’ and the winter of discontent showed.

Now trade unions represent seven million, mostly public sector employees, and individual party membership is well under 200,000, it is less clear who the party represent and how it balances its core support with winning enough votes to form an effective government.

On issue after issue, banking reform, welfare, immigration, Trident, the party finds itself caught between its core vote instincts and winning over new more centrist converts; between the memory and lessons of Blair and breaking free from what many see as a fatal embrace.

A recent Lord Ashcroft super poll of 20,000 voters showed that of the top four issues of concern: growth and jobs, welfare, immigration and cutting the deficit, Labour was ahead on only one and by a slender margin, growth and jobs, and behind on the other three by significant margins. This when Labour had a sizeable national lead, and before the coalition upped the temperature on welfare.

It may seem implausible to write this but if the economy improves by 2015 many fear Labour’s lead will prove weak and may vanish leaving Miliband and the party in trouble.

A deeper and longer problem could arise. The next election (which of course could be the last UK election ever) could see three unpopular Westminster mainstream parties face each other with Labour’s core vote of 35% enough with the electoral system to produce a Miliband Premiership.

While Labour supporters would welcome this it would represent a government with a thin mandate and little room for maneouvre to make difficult choices in hard times. It would be a government the forces of right wing England would not trust or see as representing their interests and which they would wage vicious war on from day one.

At the moment Ed Miliband is as far away from a sea-changing politician as one could imagine, with his best prospects being a one term Prime Ministership before the rightward march of English politics continues apace.

The tragedy is that Miliband understands this conundrum: the limits of Labour’s appeal pre-Blair and the downside of the Thatcherite/Blairite consensus. Doing something about it would mean breaking from the caricatures of ‘Steady Ed’ and ‘Red Ed’ and nurturing an inclusive, radical coalition against the current political settlement. He wants to do this, but so far there is little sign that he will embark on such a high-risk strategy.