‘‘Anger is to make you effective,” wrote the American novelist Philip Roth. “That’s its survival function . . . If it makes you ineffective, drop it like a hot potato.” The line is spoken by a character in I Married a Communist, a book about idealism, betrayal and the bourgeois fear of socialism – all ingredients in the current conjugal tiff between the Labour Party and the trade unions.
Since going into opposition, Labour has prized anger over effectiveness. There is fury at the Lib Dems for propping up a Tory government. There is rage against public-sector cuts. Increasingly, there is frustration with Ed Miliband for failing to mobilise a national uprising against the coalition’s wickedness.
On the left, a common explanation for Labour disappointments is the enduring influence of “Blairism”. For example, in the aftermath of the Falkirk selection scandal, agents of the turbo-capitalist cult of New Labour are accused of sabotaging the party’s relationship with trade unions. Reasonable observers of events around Falkirk see the exposure of a strategy by Unite – the party’s largest union backer, led by Len McCluskey – to colonise parliament by controlling Labour candidate selections. McCluskey loyalists see a conspiracy to finish the job of anti-proletarian vandalism begun by Tony Blair.
Miliband has soothed jangled Labour nerves with a shrewd speech that offered reforms that were couched as a renewal of vows with ordinary working people, all bundled up with a call for more open politics. That is one of those ideas that is vaguely noble enough that no one can demand the opposite. Whether he can deliver the changes he promises – most controversially, ending the system that makes automatic Labour donors of some union members – is an open question. Meanwhile, the ferocity of Tory attacks has triggered a tribal impulse that is shared by all Labour factions and passes for a truce.
A semblance of party unity has been one of Miliband’s more conspicuous achievements since 2010 and the source of some of his biggest problems. His victory in the leadership contest, delivered with union support, was precarious. He lacked a believer base in the wider party. That weakness increased his reliance on the machinery of party control inherited from Gordon Brown – an apparatus programmed to undermine the supposed Blairites.
That animus was transferred to supporters of David Miliband’s failed bid for the Labour leadership. In particular, Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy, the shadow cabinet ministers who ran the elder brother’s campaign, have been caricatured as a diabolic duo thwarting efforts to restore the party to the path of left-wing righteousness. While Blairish ideas certainly get a forceful airing in the shadow cabinet and the media, they have been neutered in much of the party.
On his election, Miliband ostentatiously “turned the page” on New Labour. The line was meant to signal renewal – a necessary phase of opposition – but it was received by some as permission to avoid thinking about how to reach beyond the core vote. It also gave implicit permission for McCluskey’s manoeuvres to increase Unite’s influence, expressed as a working-class makeover.
The myth of a Blairite stranglehold endures because, in policy terms, Miliband keeps making moves urged on him by the right of the party – on spending restraint, on immigration, on welfare. But that isn’t because shadow ministers are duffing up their leader behind the parliamentary bike sheds. It is because Miliband pays attention to voters and modifies his position accordingly. He wants to keep his party united but he also wants to win an election. The two ambitions inevitably collide.
That tension would have put more strain on the leader’s office in recent years had grassroots anger not helpfully been directed elsewhere. That is no longer possible, given that the spotlight has fallen on the dark recesses of machine politics. (Shady stitch-ups, it must be added, are not the exclusive preserve of unions or Labour.) Miliband has had to take personal ownership of an agenda that Blair declares is bold and necessary. If it works, his leadership will be transformed; if it fails, there will be no shadowy conspiracy to blame.
This is not a left-right calculation or a Blairite-Brownite one. The aspect of the saga that most fired Miliband’s will, say friends, was neither ideological nor factional. It wasn’t even the need to rebut Tory charges of weakness. It was a realisation that the smell of shabby politics was contaminating his ambition to be a candidate of national renewal. Ignoring corruption would undermine the part of Miliband’s image that Labour strategists see as his greatest asset – the feeling that he is fundamentally a decent guy.
Those who work closely with Miliband say that he rarely loses his temper but his “Zen” calm can be snapped by accusations of hypocrisy. On the eve of his speech, Miliband explained his union reforms to a meeting of Labour MPs that I have heard variously described as “charged” and “edgy” with “sharp questions”. Yet habitual doubters also tell me their leader was more passionate and more convincing than they have seen him for a while. There is some way yet to go. The sceptics, not all of them Blairites, note that Miliband has a habit of making speeches full of brave intent, then failing to follow them up. A continual source of frustration has been that the Labour leader seems neither angry nor effective enough. Maybe that is about to change.