Miliband's intervention is a victory for the Occupy Movement

The protesters are helping to shape the terms of the political debate.

Let's be clear. It is impossible to imagine a Labour Party led by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown -- in opposition or in government -- having a single positive thing to say about the protesters huddled around St Paul's Cathedral. But Ed Miliband has penned a piece for today's Observer that, with a few predictable caveats, argues he is coming from the same place as the Occupy movement. The protests "reflect a crisis of concern for millions of people about the biggest issue of our time: the gap between their values and the way our country is run," he argues.

Firstly, it's a victory for Occupy. The left is so accustomed to defeat that it is often incapable of acknowledging a step forward, however limited or modest in scale. For some, Miliband is to be damned whatever he does: to be rightly condemned if he denounces the protests, and to be accused of attempting to co-opt them if he welcomes them. But the fact that a Labour leader is at all upbeat about the Occupy movement in the Sunday papers shows that pressure from below pays off. The movement is helping to shape the terms of the political debate.

After all, Miliband would not have written this piece if Occupy was the object of widespread hostility, or if it had failed to strike a chord. A poll for ICM two weeks ago revealed that, while 38 per cent felt the protests were "naive" and that "there is no practical alternative to capitalism", 51 per cent believed that "the protesters are right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people".

Though some have argued that Occupy has been derailed by the stand-off with the Church, the presence of those tents has prompted a discussion about issues the media would otherwise choose to ignore. Last week, I took part in a 5 Live debate about the future of capitalism; I pointed out that we were only talking about it because of the hundreds of activists outside St Paul's.

But Miliband's piece is further evidence that there has been a shift at the top of the Labour leadership. He slams "many of those who earn the most, exercise great power, enjoy enormous privilege" for having "values that are out of kilter with almost everyone else". He attacks "a system of irresponsible, predatory capitalism"; energy companies and banks come under fire, too. And he openly taps into the signature slogan of the Occupy movement: "People feel let down by aspects of business, finance and politics which seem in touch with the richest 1 per cent -- but badly out of touch with the reality facing the other 99 per cent." Can anyone seriously imagine either Blair or Brown making such a case?

I'm no Labour leadership sycophant: while his analysis is broadly correct, his proposed solutions (such as they exist) are timid, to say the least. Talk of cutting student fees from £9,000 to £6,000 will excite nobody and simply helps reinforce a consensus around education. He remains committed to "measured spending cuts" that would be anything but that -- while they would not be as fast or as deep as the Tories', they would remain the most devastating since the 1920s. A coherent alternative to the cuts agenda has yet to emerge.

Last week, the Labour leadership refused to oppose the government's criminalisation of squatting at a time when millions are languishing on housing waiting lists; and its rhetoric and policies around welfare have conceded much ground to "scrounger-bashing".

And, of course, it is a damning indictment of just how far to the right New Labour had drifted that Miliband's rhetoric is worth commenting on at all. But that the Labour leadership feels obliged to develop a trenchant critique of modern capitalism shows that the old neo-liberal consensus is crumbling. What's more, it opens up space for far more radical demands.

During last year's Labour leadership contest, I argued that David Miliband had to be defeated at all costs. If he won, he would have capitulated to Cameron's "small state" agenda; indeed, his lauding of R A B Butler -- the postwar Tory politician who argued that the Conservatives must accept the key policies introduced by Clement Attlee's postwar Labour government -- suggested he would do just that. Ed Miliband is no left-winger but I believed that -- in contrast to his brother -- he could be shifted by pressure from below. Today's article is evidence that this is true after all.

Privately, I suspect Ed Miliband is committed to some kind of revival of old-style social democracy. He refers to the two previous governments that established new political consensus: Attlee in 1945 and Thatcher in 1979 (though, mistakenly in my view, he includes Blair in 1997 -- but he would have provoked an almighty internal party row if he had not). If the Labour leadership is to genuinely break from the neo-liberal consensus established by Thatcher, there needs to be far more pressure from below: both to create political space to make it possible, but also to drag the Labour leadership -- kicking and screaming if needs be -- to give a real alternative to Tory cuts.

No, I don't expect or want the Occupy protesters to mock up posters of Miliband as Che Guevara. The Labour leadership must come under fire when it gives ground to the Tories. But today's Observer piece suggests that the political winds are starting to blow in a different direction. It's an opportunity that desperately needs to be exploited.

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.