Miliband needs to go much further to restore confidence

The Labour leader must use this moment to emancipate himself from the machine that won him the job in the first place.

Ed Miliband is at a fork in the road. Plainly he cannot go back, by which I mean he cannot pretend that there is nothing of great significance to see in the row over the Falkirk selection – that it was a rogue case; single bad apple etc.

Len McCluskey’s attack on the Labour leadership – accusing the party of smearing Unite and betraying its trust – bars that route. Besides, every Labour activist, member, MP and any journalist who has spoken much to any of those people knows there is a systemic problem with the opaque way the apparatus has traditionally operated. They also know there has been a concerted effort by Unite to manipulate that process to increase its control over Labour. So when McCluskey implies the party leadership is involved in some nasty plot to be beastly to the union and that Unite, in other words, are the victims of a conspiracy, he is directly challenging Miliband’s authority. He is saying, in effect: "You are not the master of this situation and have no control over how it will end; so let me make this easy – back down, and it ends." Except, of course, it won’t.

So the choice for Miliband is between prolonged managed crisis and full-blown confrontation. It is between hoping that this can be made to go away with some judicious, calculated moves (Miliband’s standard modus operandi) or using the situation to open a whole new chapter in his leadership.

Miliband might think that Tom Watson’s resignation, freezing the Falkirk selection process and ending the system that allows unions to buy up bundles of party membership will signal determination to get a grip. He may believe that the necessary resolve is indicated with some firm words, whether from his own mouth or through a spokesman or shadow cabinet ally, saying dodgy selections will not be tolerated. If so, he is wrong.

Judging by my conversations with some Labour MPs in the past 24 hours, I’d say Miliband has to go much, much further to restore confidence. This isn’t about whether he supports the union link or whether he should be acquiescing to Tory attacks on the left. Nor is it about mechanisms to ensure more "working class" candidates are selected. (Of course, in that argument, class is usually a category of ideology, not background or income. The people defending Unite on those terms aren’t hankering after the next generation of working class Alan Johnsons, Alan Milburns or Hazel Blears.)

What this is really about is Ed Miliband’s capacity to be a leader at all – to emancipate himself from the machine that won him the job in the first place and that has helped consolidate his position, but at a heavy price. A superficial unity was achieved but there was no intellectual or ideological harmony, no reconciliation between factions, no meaningful synthesis of ideas and, as a result, no clarity of direction. As I wrote in this week’s magazine, Miliband is desperate to be a candidate who talks about the future, but the Labour Party is still tangled up in a way of doing politics that reeks of a joyless, airless, stale past.

Worse, it looks to many people inside the party and beyond as if Miliband has been shrinking, not growing into the job. The cavalier and patronising tone of Watson’s resignation letter has not gone unnoticed. Between the lines, Labour MPs are reading a message of casual disregard: sorry mate, all got a bit tricky, can’t be bothered anymore, good luck with that whole 'leadership' thing, see ya around.

There is a feeling around the parliamentary Labour party today that Watson and McCluskey are threatening to take their ball home if the game can’t be played by their rules. And there is concern that Miliband is looking like the weedy kid in the playground who will be left standing alone, unpicked to play on any team. As one shadow minister, a despairing Ed supporter, put it to me last night: "It’s time to stand up to the bullies now and say clearly, 'f--- off'".

Raising the tone a bit, I’d say this is starting to feel like Ed’s Prince Hal moment. There is the famous scene at the end of Henry IV Part II when the young Prince comes away from his coronation and is accosted by Falstaff – the ribald villain whose company he kept through the years of misspent youth. Falstaff has been waiting for this moment, thinking he will be in with the new King and enjoy grotesque and fabulous privileges. But Hal surprises everyone by cutting his old crony down. "I know thee not old man," he says.

Well, Ed Miliband needs that kind of moment. He needs something that will signal the beginning of a new phase in his leadership; that he has the confidence and the vision to govern in a better, more open, more imaginative way. At the moment it looks as if it is Falstaff who is getting the last word, saying to the new King: "Thanks for the ride but, frankly, I’ve got better things to do." And if Henry IV Pt II had ended like that, there would never have been a King Henry V.

"It looks to many people inside the party and beyond as if Miliband has been shrinking, nor growing into the job." Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.