Ed Miliband and the Limits of the New Socialism

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, December 18th 2010

The Westminster chattering class view is that Ed Miliband has failed as Labour leader. He is seen as indecisive, lacking in political strategy and viewed as taking Labour back into its old comfort zones.

Then there are the opinion polls. Labour may be cheered by the polls – and in most it is at or above 40% – but Miliband’s ratings – are so critics allege – the lowest for any new leader apart from Michael Foot, William Hague and Nick Clegg; Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and David Cameron all had higher ratings. The argument is clear: Ed Miliband is a loser.

Only this week Gavin Esler talked of as a fact that Miliband’s leadership was ‘faltering’ while John Reid has been out on military manoeuvres. Labour’s new leader said Reid ‘does not understand New Labour’ or the need for change to embrace ‘permanent revisionism’.

Ed Miliband is being seriously underestimated in these accounts. He defeated the media and political establishment’s favourite candidate in the Labour leadership election (his brother David). He has drawn a decisive line under Blairism and New Labour with its corruption, cronyism and corporate love affair, and he has openly declared that the Iraq war was ‘wrong’. And each week at Prime Ministerial Questions he has shown he can do well against David Cameron.

Yet the whole Blairite political establishment in Labour is feeling the loss of what it sees as its by right: how it proscribes what is possible and not possible in politics. The old ruling order feels it has been chucked out of power, and its way of seeing things: no deviation from New Labour as under attack.

Miliband has in his journey so far drawn on a substantial body of rethinking on the centre-left, particularly from Compass, the centre-left pressure group, who have been working for the last few years on developing a post-New Labour agenda.

Rather helpfully in the last couple of weeks, Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, and John Harris, a journalist, have written a major essay exploring the prospect of new thinking, ‘Time for a New Socialism’. This lays out the challenge to Labour and Ed Miliband and makes the case for a ‘new socialism’ which is equipped to deal with the challenges we face.

Lawson and Harris concede that New and Old Labour are both dead and good riddance to them. Social democracy with its statism, top downism and experts know best approach, has been in retreat for decades. And they believe ‘a new paradigm’ is emerging around the need for greater equality, a more regulated capitalism, pluralism and decentralism.

This is frankly for all the good intentions a threadbare analysis and prospectus. There is no understanding or critique offered of the nature of the British state, the undemocratic nature of the political order of Britain, and no reference made to the insular character of our politics and political classes.

There is the story of Britain that Lawson and Harris tell which is a narrow, discredited one totally focused and obsessed with Westminster bubble politics with no mention of the crisis, debris and disaster which this has brought about. Nowhere do they make the connection between the economic crisis engulfing us and the political crisis and order which brought this about because they just don’t see it.

There is a passing nod to ‘an era of pluralism’ and ‘the new politics’ personified by the coalition and Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but it is all a fleeting mention. Lawson and Harris do not challenge the unitary state account of Britain which gave us Thatcherism, Blairism and Old Labour. Even more damning they ignore England, and the fact that while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have developed new political cultures and voices, England has been left as the nation of the democratic deficit.

While we have Scottish and Welsh Labour with all their imperfections, English Labour has yet to be born. This is terrain which Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham has stated is central to Labour and democracy; it is also ground Compass have systematically ignored, as do Lawson and Harris.

What we do get is the constant Compass refrain of ‘the good society’ which is as nebulous and flawed an idea as ‘the big society’, and in many respects even more vague. There is no real curiosity shown for the Cameroon Conservatives or the substantial rethinking going on in centre-right circles.

This sort of left writing has a strange timelessness and listlessness about it. For all its talk of urgency and now it could have been with a few changes of detail written in 1983. It focuses nearly completely on Labour, internal party conversations, and with the concept of ‘the left’. This is that age-old belief that through focusing on perfecting Labour you can change the world.

For all its claims of pluralism and abandoning the comfort zones of New Labour, this is deeply tribal, old-fashioned thinking: the party at the centre of everything, the zenith of aspirations a kind of ‘Back to the Future’ to social democracy and ‘new socialism’. David Marquand, a learned historian of Labour and British politics has written in response to Lawson and Harris, that given the state of politics domestically and internationally, focusing on the health of Labour as your central activity is ‘displacement activity’.

What then does this hold for Ed Miliband and life post-New Labour? The age of New Labour is over; it has exhausted itself and become part of the problem, not the solution, and its advocates morphed into the new conservatives. Miliband clearly sees the challenge for him as one for the long distance runner and not a sprinter. This demands a politics as ambitious and ideological as Margaret Thatcher aspired to when she dared to remake ‘the common ground’ when she became Tory leader in 1975.

Miliband faces huge obstacles to achieving this. There is Labour tribalism and love of anti-Toryism. Then there is Labour short-termism – which will be aided by the cuts and coalition unpopularity – which still does not understand why people don’t vote Labour and has little grasp why millions of working people vote Conservative.

More seriously in the medium to long term is what Labour stands for? The old social democracy is dead, but it cannot be resuscitated by a new social democracy or socialism. The values of the left are as tarnished in the current crisis as that of the right and neo-liberalism, both being modernist projects fixated and based on economic growth.

New radical thinking is needed which is not based on internal Labour conversations, or endless questions about ‘what would the left do about … welfare, work or civil liberties?’ Addressing the future of Labour requires addressing the future of society, Britain, and imagining a different future. For all Ed Miliband’s good intentions he is going to find all of this an uphill struggle, and he will need more in-depth thinking than that shown by his friends so far.