Miliband doesn’t need freeing from the clutches of the Blairites – he has chosen this path himself

The Labour leader wants to keep his party united but he also wants to win an election. The two ambitions inevitably collide.

‘‘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.

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.