Where next for Ed? Mehdi Hasan on a fraternal dispute

The Labour leader ended a bad January on a high - and then brother David intervened.

Ed Miliband had a bad, bad January - but ended on a high. Having fallen behind in the polls, been attacked by his guru, got his message mixed up on cuts and gaffed on Twitter, the final few days of the month saw him help force RBS chief executive Stephen Hester turn down his million-pound bonus and put Cameron on the defensive, and then put in a strong performance against the Prime Minister in Tuesday's Commons debate on Europe ("Ed Miliband was very good," admitted the frequently-critical Simon Hoggart) and at PMQs, on the first day of February, on the subjects of bank bonuses and NHS reform .

Attacking the bankers - over excessive bonuses, lack of transparency, failure to lend and the rest - has proved to be a boon for Ed M. Recent polls show Labour has slashed the Tories' 5-point lead and I suspect we'll continue to see a mild uptick in the party's poll rating in the coming days and weeks. Why? Because, in the current climate, left-populism works. The public wants the political elites to take on the financial elites. It's not rocket science - and I'm not sure how many times some of us have to make this rather simple and obvious point to a cautious Labour leadership.

In October 2010, for example, after Ed M failed to make any public comment whatsoever on a 55 per cent jump in pay for FTSE 100 executives, I wrote:

So, Ed, where are you? Still running from the "Red" tag? Let's be clear. There is nothing "red" about objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries. In fact, the public would be on your side if you did - polls show voters support a high pay commission and higher taxes on bonuses and object to the growing gap between rich and poor in modern Britain.

Eighteen months later, Ed M is starting to reap the rewards of "objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries". Here's political editor Joe Murphy in Monday's Evening Standard:

Ed Miliband has scored a big victory that will give his leadership a much-needed boost.

But Ed mustn't lose momentum on this issue - as he did on phone-hacking last summer, where he dropped the baton and allowed Cameron to kick the Murdoch/media reform issue into the long grass. The Labour leader has to own the issue of high pay - and keep banging on about it whenever he gets the chance. It isn't that hard, to be honest. For instance, why doesn't he come out loudly and publicly against the new bonus scheme being demanded by Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins, whose taxpayer-funded basic salary is already £560,000? Why doesn't he position himself at the head of a campaign to demand RBS refrains from paying out multi-million-pound, taxpayer-funded bonuses to members of its investment banking division, as is expected to happen in the not-too-distant future?

Then there's the issue of the cuts and Labour's various contortions on the subject. As a must-read, myth-busting Guardian leader points out today:

After just one year of full-blown austerity, marked by student occupations and rioting, it is sobering to be reminded that 94% of Mr Osborne's departmental spending cuts are still to come, along with another 88% of the planned reductions to benefits.

Ed M mustn't panic. The cuts have yet to fully kick in - let's see how popular (and/or effective) austerity measures are in 12 or 18 months time. Now is not the time for mixed-messaging on spending cuts, or cutting and running, otherwise Labour won't be able to reap the electoral rewards of having opposed them once the public turns - and it will turn, mark my words - against slash-and-burn, austerity-obsessed, 1930s-style economics. After all, as David Blanchflower notes in this week's magazine, the "Osborne collapse" has well and truly begun.

It is unfashionable, I know, but I've never bought into the nonsensical line from the right-wing press that Ed Miliband can't win, won't win, will never be prime minister, blah blah blah. It isn't just that, as Lord Ashcroft of all people has pointed out, he coud get "close to 40 per cent of the vote [in 2015] without needing to get out of bed". It's much more than that: Ed, at his best, brightest and boldest, understands the issues that matter to the great British public (see "squeezed middle", high pay, vested interests, etc) and, from time to time, displays excellent political judgement (phone hacking, the Hester bonus, shadow cabinet elections, etc). It's too soon to write him off. Meanwhile, the past few days have shown how unpredictable and capricious modern British politics can be: against the odds, Ed has recovered after his awful start to the year.

So, will big brother David's intervention in this week's New Statesman harm him? It wasn't, as some have claimed, an out-and-out attack on his younger brother. Nonetheless, the elder Miliband clearly isn't happy about the direction of the Ed-led Labour Party, isn't afraid to let people know that he isn't happy and surely must have known how a febrile, splits-obsessed media pack would respond to his detailed, if somewhat dry, critique of the views not so much of Ed himself but one of Ed's chief supporters, Roy Hattersley - and, that too, five months after the latter's original article on social democracy appeared in Political Quarterly. (On a side note, and to be fair, it is worth pointing out that David does volunteer four positive and named references to Ed in his NS piece.)

I'm never quite sure what David's game-plan is; what it is that he wants. The Times's Sam Coates had the best line on Twitter:

All DM's old tricks - setting up straw men (Hattersley) to knock down, loyal and disloyal simultaneously, over-complicated. Why do it?

Indeed. Whatever your view of David's intervention, the timing is bad for Ed, coming as it does after his strong performances at PMQs and in the Commons debate on Europe.

Perhaps Ed Miliband is just an unlucky leader. Not according to Steve Richards, in today's Independent. Steve makes a counter-intuitive but powerful argument in his column:

David Cameron's misguided attempt to secure an easy symbolic hit by removing the knighthood of a single banker shows how rocky the ride will be. As I have argued before, Cameron and George Osborne are not the brilliant tacticians or strategists mythology insists they are. They are middle ranking, and when they try to be too clever by half, they slip towards the relegation zone. Voters do not care a damn about the sensitivities of a greedy, incompetent banker, but they can spot a red herring as big and bright as this one.

The failure of this populist gesture shows that the issue demands more clear thinking than a bit of Bullingdon Club game-playing, and points to massive challenges for both Cameron and Ed Miliband in the coming years. For Cameron, the issue confirms my view that he is an unlucky leader.

Yet, according to Steve:

It might not seem this way to him, or to his taunting critics, but Miliband is a lucky leader. He has made a mark in responding to these events, demanding an inquiry into newspapers, while Cameron has still clung to the idea of protecting the old order, and outlining in general terms the case for a new moral capitalism. In doing so, he has had more practical impact on the course of current tumultuous dramas than any recent leader of the opposition.

He rightly concludes:

Cameron and Osborne are awestruck that in every opinion poll voters placed Tony Blair precisely on the centre ground. They want to be in the same place as their hero at the next election. But what it means to be on the centre ground is changing fast now and will have changed even more by then.

(On a related note, my colleague Rafael Behr makes the opposite case to Steve in this week's New Statesman cover story, entitled "Lucky Dave".)


Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.