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
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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