Miliband reminds us how Thatcher inspired him

"She moved the centre ground of British politics," the Labour leader said. He is trying to achieve the same feat today.

Ed Miliband's dignified and well-crafted statement on Margaret Thatcher's death reminded us of the inspiration he took from the former prime minister. As he pointedly noted, "She moved the centre ground of British politics". Today, Miliband is attempting to achieve something similar. Labour, he has declared, must seek not just to just to return to power in 2015 but to make its values and ideas the "common sense of our age". Just as Thatcher rejected the decades-long postwar consensus, so Miliband has rejected the consensus established by her government and faithfully adhered to by every prime minister since. Like her, he aspires to be a genuinely transformative leader. 

Despite the huge majorities won by Labour in 1997 and 2001, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown continued to view Britain as a fundamentally conservative country. By contrast, Miliband believes, as his chief strategist Stewart Wood put it today (in reference to Thatcher), that "real change inspired by values" is possible. He has rejected, for instance, the Blairite notion that it is neither possible nor desirable for the state to seek to reduce inequality. As he declared in his speech at last year's Labour conference, "I will never accept an economy where the gap between rich and poor just grows wider and wider. In one nation, in my faith, inequality matters.". Here, too, the parallels with Thatcher are striking. "The Old Testament prophets did not say, 'Brothers, I want a consensus,'" she once remarked. "They said, 'This is my faith. This is what I passionately believe. If you believe it, too, then come with me'". 

There remains a notable gap between the boldness of Miliband's rhetoric and the relative timidity of his policy proposals. Reintroducing the 10p tax rate and requiring public sector contractors to pay the living wage will hardly have the transformative effect that Thatcher's measures did. The ambition, however, is admirable. As Miliband's advisers are fond of pointing out, the word "privatisation" does not appear in the 1979 Conservative manifesto. In time, they suggest, greater radicalism will come. 

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution