It is timely given that it was Ralph Miliband who predicted that Labour would always fail the working-class. He couldn’t have been more right. Yet the failures of Ed Miliband will be portrayed as the inevitable disaster of a leftward shift. To understand such a falsehood is to grapple with history. The Labour Party surrendered the ground of opposition long ago. It was set in motion years before Ed Miliband took on the leadership role. The battles waged in the 1960s and 70s internal to the Establishment have had consequences which are still living with. Monetarism filled the cracks of the decaying post-war settlement with James Callaghan stepping in with just the rhetoric the IMF demanded of the British government. That was 1976. By 1979 the choice we faced was between a right-wing Labour government and an even more right-wing Conservative government.
Almost 35 years later and we’re still ensnared by the politics of frugality. The election of 1979 should not be forgotten even if the old hag has finally given up the ghost. The lesser evil offered by Labour in 1979 set the course for the way things have transpired and before we knew it the lesser evil of Tony Blair was on the television. The incessant bleating of John Major’s scandal government couldn’t have made the Third Way more appealing. Blair would make a few gestures to his base – such as minimum wage, devolution, fox-hunting ban etc. – only to institute tuition fees, crackdown on civil liberties and leave the banks to run amok. All the while the Labour government sat back as income inequality steadily grew to its highest point since 1961. As if all of this isn’t bad enough, by 2005 Blair had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with all the gusto of a child playing with toy soldiers. There ceased to be a lesser evil at all in other words.
The afterbirth of Blairism first appeared before us as the mound of Brown, only to be left inert and solid by the cold winds of the 2010 election. Since then Ed Miliband has tottered about as Labour leader making as few commitments as humanly possible. The gutter-press went on a pre-emptive offensive against any possible imaginative thoughts in Miliband’s head and dubbed him ‘Red Ed’ for good measure. Yet Miliband soon brought on board Maurice Glasman to engage in ‘Blue Labour’ shenanigans to siphon off the communitarian appeal of ‘Red Tory’. The competition is over a very small slice of votes, while the working-class vote is taken for granted. So he’s had plenty of experimentation with ‘Blue Labour’, ‘predistribution’ and, finally, ‘One Nation Labour’ which was literally plagiarised from the Conservative government of 1868. In spite of this inconvenience, Matthew D’Ancona described Miliband’s speech as ‘divisively left-wing’.
Serious minded people can see that the trilateral consensus has reached an impasse where the only task left is to dress up right-wing policies as cute and cuddly. Brown’s odour remains very much with us. Even though the financial crisis was a product of decades of economic policy around the world the Conservatives have succeeding in shifting the terms of the debate from growth to cuts. The Labour Party works within the same field of assumptions. Appropriately Blair is all for austerity and Ed Miliband has, in effect, signed on for austerity lite (at best). The reddest moment might’ve been last September when Miliband said “We will repeal [the Coalition’s] NHS bill” on the grounds that “it puts the wrong principles back at the heart of the NHS.” That’s not a bad statement, yet the NHS bill isn’t specified (thereby leaving open the possibility of a U-turn). Around that time Labour leader was saying that the next Labour government wouldn’t spend £3 billion to undo the restructuring currently underway. Again, the Health and Social Care Act remained unnamed. Then in June of this year the same walking disappointment reiterated his desire to repeal Cameron’s ‘Health Act’. None of this wordplay inspires confidence.
It seems obvious that the Labour Party is not settled in leadership, let alone in policy where Miliband has insisted that he won’t make promises which he cannot keep (so he makes no clear promises at all). The cowardice is for all to see. Blair and Brown managed to lose the Labour Party around 5 million votes in a period of 13 years. It may be too early for the Labourites to distance themselves from the legacy of New Labour. That would concede ground to the Conservatives who seek to blame everything that they are doing on Brown’s juggernaut-like spending spree. It is significant that the Conservatives failed to achieve a parliamentary majority against this backdrop of mass-disaffection. In fact, the Conservatives could only muster a 3% increase since 2005 and they haven’t seen a majority victory since the glory days of John Major. Perhaps it was a sign of inexorable decline when the carcass of Stephen Milligan was found festooned with electoral cord, bin bag, fruit and stockings.
The state of crisis within the Labour Party may be obvious, but the parallel crisis in the Conservative Party has received little discussion. The plump-lipped Michael Portillo has speculated that the Tories might not see a majority in this decade either. No governing party has ever increased its majority in Parliament since Anthony Eden. In that case it will have been 30 years since the Conservatives held a majority share of the seats in Parliament. No opposition party has achieved a majority swing for a good eight decades. It looks as though Parliament may still be hanging in 2015. Only the well-disciplined bootlicker Liberal Democrats can secure another coalition with one of the real parties. And the psephologists of the Labour-Conservative oscillation know it. In other words, the conditions are there for a left-wing alternative to challenge the centre-ground. We can even build that alternative, or sit and wait for the lesser evil to reappear.
This article was written for and posted at The Third Estate on August 26th 2013.