No exit: Ed Miliband waits to enter the hall to address supporters in London on 13 November. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The choice before Labour

Ed Miliband’s big conundrum. 

The febrile events of the past week at Westminster have wounded Ed Miliband deeply but not fatally. The Labour Party is very reluctant to topple its leaders, even when it knows it is destined to lose a general election, as it was under Michael Foot in 1983 and Gordon Brown in 2010 but is not in the present circumstances. Yet so fragile is the confidence of Labour MPs and so jittery is their general mood that one issue of the New Statesman seemed to shake the very foundations of the party and precipitated a leadership crisis.

It is nonsense to suggest that the Labour leader is a victim of a conspiracy led by the right-wing press. It is true that much of the press despises him and the Labour Party; but as our political editor, George Eaton, reported in last week’s issue, many Labour MPs have lost confidence in their leader. This fuelled the feverish speculation about Guy Fawkes Night plots and mysterious letters. Had they not been briefing, there would have been no crisis.

Labour MPs accept that there is no obvious successor to Mr Miliband. Nor is there anyone waiting and willing to strike. Alan Johnson, popular and such a gifted communicator, does not seek the highest office. David Miliband has left the House of Commons and is in exile over the water in New York. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are playing a longer game. And it seems too early for the leaders of the gifted generation who entered the House in 2010 – Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves. The party accepts that it has no alternative but to fall in behind Mr Miliband and fight the election with him as the figurehead of a movement of progressive reform.

Mr Miliband is a good and honourable man but many of his MPs believe that he is floundering. Yet they also understand how vital it is that Labour wins next May’s general election. If the Tories win or were to continue in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the consequences could be lethal for the British Union and for UK membership of the European Union. The poorest would suffer most. Food banks would proliferate. The ethos of public service would be further eroded. The marketisation of our lives and society would continue apace.

The ludicrous events in the Commons over the European Arrest Warrant demonstrated again the ineptitude of David Cameron’s government. The Tories are disunited and expected to lose the Rochester and Strood by-election to the UK Independence Party on 20 November. Nigel Farage’s party has divided the right as the left was divided by the split in the Labour Party and the creation of the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s, clearing the ground for Margaret Thatcher to carry out her grand counter-revolution. Support for the Liberal Democrats has collapsed. However, in such propitious circumstances, Labour is going backwards. In its northern English heartlands and in Scotland, many of its core supporters are giving up on the party. Or they are simply refusing to vote. Many progressives now prefer the Greens, with their robust anti-austerity message.

Mr Farage, the Ukip leader, in his interview with Jason Cowley on page 22, says: “Everybody thought that people’s tribal allegiance to Labour was as strong, if not stronger, than the tribal allegiance to the Conservative Party. What we’re actually finding is, they don’t even recognise the tribe . . . Increasingly what we’re finding is the people that come from the Labour side . . . don’t think anyone’s on their side.”

Mr Miliband challenged and defeated his elder brother, David, for the leadership because he believed only he could effect the change that Britain needed. He is nothing if not resilient and has that little chip of ice in the heart that characterises all politicians of serious ambition. Indeed, it is a sense of destiny that sustains him even now, in his darkest hours, as many despair of him.

Yet he cannot continue to bear so much of the burden alone. Labour needs to harness the talents and skills of its frontbenchers, including the admirable Jon Cruddas, Mr Burnham, Mr Umunna and Ms Cooper, as part of a more inclusive, team-based approach. In contrast to the Tories, who have failed to shed their image as the party of the rich, Labour’s brand remains strong and polls show that its progressive policies – higher NHS spending, wealth taxes, mass housebuilding and an increased minimum wage – have broad appeal.

Having lost so much ground in spite of this, the party needs urgently to improve if it is to convince voters that it represents a credible alternative government. A defeat to an administration that has combined incompetence with callousness like few others is one that its supporters cannot afford and would not forgive. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.