Labour's internal battle is a tale of two Eds, both called Miliband

The opposition ranks are close to despair over an apparent lack of direction.

Once again the Labour party is being spared embarrassment by Tory divisions over Europe. It is a familiar pattern. When the Conservatives are quiet and organised the spotlight falls on Ed Miliband. He appears to mumble or fluff his lines. The script isn’t gripping the audience. Labour MPs shuffle uncomfortably in their seats. It all starts to look a bit awkward. And then everyone’s attention is distracted by fighting somewhere off to the right of the stage – an unseemly scuffle that looks as if it might end up with David Cameron falling on his backside or being dragged into the wings never to return.

Every Labour MP I speak to declares it is not safe to rely on Tory disorder to make Miliband look like a credible Prime Minister in waiting. But government tumult occurs with sufficient regularity to keep the embers of optimism glowing on the opposition benches.

Yet there is another familiar cycle that afflicts the Labour side. It is the pattern of doubt over the viability of Miliband’s bid for power being filtered through the urge to remove Ed Balls from the shadow Treasury brief. The argument is well-rehearsed and has two pillars. First is the belief that Labour will not persuade wavering voters that it has something fresh and exciting to say about the economy (a pre-condition for victory) as long as the man delivering its main economic message is perceived as an incarnation of the politics and fiscal strategy of Gordon Brown. The second concern is that Balls is congenitally opposed to any public rehearsal of ideas for reforming the way government and the state function; that he is a classic Treasury centraliser and sceptical about the need to urge innovation in the public sector. In that guise, Balls is seen as the engine of incrementalism, holding back any declaration of governing intent through bold policy priorities before there is more clarity about the state of the economy that a Labour government would inherit.

The most persuasive counter-arguments are that Balls’s macroeconomic analysis has proved much more prescient than Osborne’s and that he is one of few obviously substantial and experienced figures on the Labour front bench. He is respected as an economist even by those who don’t like him as a politician, which is more than can be said about the present Chancellor. To ditch Balls would be to declare a vote of no confidence in pretty much everything Labour has said on the economy thus far in opposition, which is a path self-evidently fraught with hazard.

The latest intimation of irritation with Balls comes in a piece in the Sun today, declaring enthusiasm for the “Blue Labour” strand of thinking in which Miliband has dabbled. It cites unnamed sources agitating for Jon Cruddas, currently head of the party’s policy review, to be made Shadow Chancellor. Balls, it is suggested, might be made Shadow Foreign Secretary – a role of adequate seniority to fit the man’s status as a heavyweight. (What the Sun’s anonymous informers think should therefore become of Douglas Alexander, who currently holds the shadow foreign affairs brief, isn’t disclosed.)

These whispers, aimed presumably at influencing the outcome of a shadow cabinet reshuffle that everyone expects to happen over the summer or early in the autumn, confirm something I wrote back in January. Namely, that the battle for possession of Labour’s soul is no longer between “new” and “old” permutations but between “blue” and “brown”. I concluded then that:

There is a caricature of Labour’s public-sector debate that pits the frugal, reforming idolators of Tony Blair against spendthrift, reactionary disciples of Brown. The distinction is increasingly meaningless. Orthodox Blairites are a rare and neutered breed and even they accept that Balls, for all that the Tories paint him as Brownism incarnate, is wedded to budget discipline.

The real tension is both subtler and more profound. It is between the need to defend Labour’s legacy of investment in public services and the impulse to imagine different ways of effecting social change. It is the dilemma of how to rehabilitate the abstract principle that government can be the citizen’s friend while also attacking the current government as a menace to society. It is the battle between Brown and Blue shades of Labour which remains unresolved, because Ed Miliband is personally steeped in both.

I stand by that analysis. I would add, though, that five months have elapsed since then and Labour appear not to have advanced any closer to the affections of the undecided electorate. If anything, their reliance on coalition cock-up and in-fighting has become more pronounced.

Naturally, the anxiety this provokes has become more acute. A crucial factor in all of this is the departure of David Miliband from the front line of British politics and indeed from the shores of Britain. The elder Miliband was not, as some seem to think, loitering with intent as a leader-in-waiting, although he was sometimes talked up as a potential shadow chancellor. But his erasure from the picture has had a more subtle effect. David may not have been an imminent candidate for the leadership but he was an ever-present emblem of a different leadership that might have been. His departure has somehow underscored the point that Ed won. The victory of autumn 2010, which felt lopsided because it was delivered by a peculiar internal electoral system that allowed a trade union bloc vote to trump the will of members and MPs, has been cemented. The younger Miliband’s position at the top is undisputed. There is nothing and no-one stopping him from doing with the party what he wants – taking it in the direction of his choosing – except perhaps Ed himself.

An observation I often hear from Labour MPs, advisors and people close to the leader’s office is that there are really two Eds. There is the cautious, calculating one who learned machine politics and tactical manoeuvring at the feet of Gordon Brown. Then there is the bold and energetic one who is a fluent and persuasive advocate for a new left vision that might cut through the sterile ideological and factional vendettas that encrusted the last Labour government. It is, in a sense, the difference between “One Nation” Labour as a genuine call to arms to rebuild solidarity and national purpose and “One Nation” Labour as a bit of wrinkly old sticky tape holding disparate parts of a directionless machine together.

From my conversations with Labour people – on the left and the right of the party – I sense diminishing confidence that “good” Ed will triumph. The optimism born of Tory division and Cameron’s loss of control is yielding diminishing returns for the Labour leader, not least because angry and disillusioned Conservative voters are flocking to Ukip instead of rallying to the main opposition party. Ed Miliband is entering very dangerous territory. If the opinion polls stay as stuck as they are, the weakness of the government will no longer be a source of confidence for the opposition. Instead it will be a catalyst for panic. At the moment, Labour people are outraged by what the coalition is doing to the economy and public services and scornful of the Tories' capacity to solve the nation’s problems. Pretty soon, if the Labour leader cannot capitalise on Tory weakness, all of that anger and contempt will rebound onto him. The uselessness of the coalition is coming to be seen not just as a measure of Cameron’s deficiency, but of Miliband’s inability to press home an advantage.

There is nothing stopping Miliband from doing what he wants with the party – except perhaps Ed himself. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition