Miliband has finally achieved total command – but will Blue Ed or Brown Ed take the spoils?

We are about to discover whether Miliband is, as he believes, the first Labour leader of a new era or, as his critics suspect, the last leader of the era now ending.

There should be a word for the mixed emotions that working parents feel when their children’s teachers go on strike. Moral support for aggrieved educators clashes with irritation at the need for emergency childcare. What do you call solidarity softened by resentment? Semisolidarity?

One person who will be unperturbed by the pedagogic walkout on 17 October is Michael Gove. The Education Secretary is on a mission to smash what he sees as a reactionary educational establishment that protects its own privileges more rigorously than it pursues children’s enlightenment. Howls of pain from the NUT are his proof that the plan is working.

It doesn’t do the Tories any favours to alienate a profession that enjoys far more public sympathy than politicians do. At the same time, making parents feel like collateral damage in someone else’s war isn’t a winning strategy for teachers.

The big teaching unions are not formally affiliated to the Labour Party but that doesn’t stop Conservatives trying to make industrial action the opposition’s problem. Tories don’t need much of a pretext to call Ed Miliband a born appeaser of Trotskyite militants. Labour can truthfully deny all responsibility for strikes yet still be discomfited by them.

It is an awkward fact that unions do not inspire a comradeship outside the club of their own members. It is rational for public sector workers to fight against paltry pay rises and to defend their pensions. It is less obvious why private-sector workers at the bottom of the heap whose employers give them no pay rise and no pension at all should cheer them on.

This fracturing of labour solidarity is a crisis for the left. Austerity has not mobilised the masses against a government of capitalist oppressors. It has not galvanised the nation with a noble sense of collective endeavour. The evidence suggests it has made us more jealous in guarding what we have and likelier to suspect others of taking more than their fair share. Across a range of domestic and foreign policies, Labour is struggling to adapt to the mean spirit of the times. Activists cherish a welfare system that subsidises people who earn little or nothing with cash transfers from their neighbours. Public consent for that model is vanishing. The left venerates the anti-racist tradition of refusing to blame foreigners for shortages of jobs and homes. That creed is no match for fearmongering parables of an island nation being overrun. Miliband is an instinctive believer in the founding ideal of the European Union – that the continent’s destructive nationalisms dissolve in cross-border trade. Ukip’s depiction of Brussels as an occupying power has more popular credence.

It would be less of a problem for Labour if it were on the wrong side of public opinion on just one of those issues. Combine them and it looks like swimming against a cultural torrent. Yet in recent weeks Miliband’s entourage has been possessed by new optimism. The Labour leader believes his crusade to tackle the rising cost of living has disoriented David Cameron. He calculates that the Conservatives’ allergy to market intervention leaves the Prime Minister bereft of effective responses.

Meanwhile, the shadow cabinet reshuffle has allowed Labour to relaunch existing policy positions into a more receptive media climate. Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, declared that Labour would be “tough but fair” on welfare, which is what Liam Byrne had been trying to say. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, made the same compromise on free schools that Stephen Twigg made back in June (Labour would allow them only in needy areas and would call them something else).The interventions only felt new because the messengers were received as authorised Milibandites and not, as their predecessors had been caricatured, as Blairite provocateurs.

Labour MPs are now watching to see whether new confidence in the leader’s office translates into a more imaginative approach to politics or just tighter control. Seasoned Miliband watchers are familiar with the phenomenon of his two competing political personas. There is the insurgent idealist, the dabbler in “Blue Labour” philosophy that rejects the bureaucratic state as a mechanism for effecting social change. Blue Ed challenges orthodoxies and takes risks. Then there is the Westminster apparatchik who learned politics by watching Gordon Brown sneak up on power. Brown Ed avoids party confrontations and advances in tactical increments.

Blue Ed grasps that the hollowing out of political solidarity in Britain is an existential challenge to the left. He recognises that Labour needs to look and sound like a very different party if it is to turn his “one nation” politics into a genuine antidote to social division. Brown Ed can see a way to eke out the dregs of the old solidarity – public sector loyalists and visceral Tory-haters whose voices can be amplified by a dysfunctional voting system – to smuggle himself into No 10. Advocates of each path have access to Miliband’s ear. Most shadow cabinet ministers profess ignorance of what really goes on in the leader’s office, although they recognise that there is a battle between imagination and caution for possession of Labour’s future.

The moment when a leader asserts his strength is also the point when he is most exposed. After three years of managing divisions and battling disloyalty – some of it real, much of it imagined – Miliband has achieved total command. There is no obstacle to boldness. There is nothing to stop him being as fearless as his friends have always said he can be, which is what the times demand. Caution can be banished. But will it?

We are about to discover whether Miliband is, as he believes, the first Labour leader of a new era or, as his critics suspect, the last leader of the era now ending.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. 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 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.