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It’s a sign of Miliband’s strength that storms are staying in their teacups

The recent convulsions around the "Blue Labour" movement could have turned into a leadership crisis.

Political parties are seldom united and never united for long. The best that leaders can usually hope for is an illusion of consent. A compelling set of policies earns some loyalty; the rest is bought with a credible promise of power.

When Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership election last September, a deal of that kind looked unlikely. He was not the first-choice candidate of a majority of party members or MPs and had to be carried over the finish line by trade unions. He was cheered on by Tories, who doubted that a lethal challenge to David Cameron could ever be fashioned from such a misshapen mandate. Miliband didn't look like a prizefighter, so neither the media nor his party treated him like one. Then came the phone-hacking scandal. Well-timed punches forced Cameron into a defensive crouch and the mood changed. For how long?

Miliband's position is stable at the moment. If he had been vulnerable, the recent convulsions around the "Blue Labour" movement that is close to his heart would have turned from a university faculty spat into a full-blown leadership crisis. The concept, which was developed by Maurice Glasman, an academic, community activist and key adviser to Miliband, defies easy summary. (For that reason, many senior figures in the party hate it, seeing its intellectual convolution as the opposite of a good campaign.) In essence, it is an attack on New Labour for allowing market forces to hollow out working-class communities. Busking on that theme in a recent interview, Glasman attacked Labour's record on immigration and the European Union, prompting accolades from the Daily Mail, a furious backlash from erstwhile allies and, in the pages of the New Statesman, an abject apology.

Burst bubble

The episode barely registered with the public and that is the point. Had mischievous frontbenchers joined forces with hostile media, it could have been a humiliation for Miliband. It wasn't. The storm stayed in the teacup.

As a semi-formal club, Blue Labour has disbanded. As a framework for developing new policies, it lives on. "Maurice will bounce back," says one senior figure close to both Glasman and Miliband. "The ideas are still really quite fundamental." Proving the point, one distinctly Glasman-inspired plan is being debated in Miliband's inner circle. The idea is to create a link between the public suspicion of global corporations, the EU and mass immigration. Big business and the financial sector will be accused of lobbying for open borders and using cheap labour to drive down workers' terms and conditions. By some rhetorical manoeuvre, as yet unrefined, this will then be tied to Miliband's campaign for a "living wage" to supplant the measly minimum one.

At present, that is just a kite being lined up to fly over the Labour party conference in the autumn. Another kite is already overhead: the "salary insurance" proposal of James Purnell, former work and pensions secretary. Newly redundant workers would continue to receive up to 70 per cent of their former wages as benefits while looking for jobs. Once back in work, they would repay the money in instalments.

To make the plan affordable, other benefits might be (whisper it) cut. The idea won choreographed approval from Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary.

That doesn't make it official Labour policy, most of which is still a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a formal review. It is, nonetheless, encouraging that Purnell's kite has even stayed airborne. In the days of the Blair-Brown mafia wars, it would have been yanked out of the sky and torn to pieces.

Labour now passes up opportunities for vicious infighting where once it seized them. According to the most optimistic interpretation, this signals a new collegiality. "Ed has an opportunity to cut out the cancer," says one veteran MP, referring to New Labour-era vendettas. A harsher view is that uneasy peace has been secured by dodging the difficult issues. There is, for example, no established Milibandite view on the use of private-sector competition to drive the reform of public services. Nor does Milibandism have an analysis of which parts of Gordon Brown's tax-and-spend policy delivered value for money and which parts failed.

Blue Labour touches on those issues but it is going a bit of a long way round, via nostalgia for the self-help tradition of pre-Second World War socialism, just to get a cogent attack on coalition policy. One shadow cabinet member belittles the Blue Labour phenomenon as a "publicity bubble" that blew up in the absence of clear intellectual direction from the top.

Battle lines

Miliband's closest allies accept that his pronouncements to date have been exercises in thinking aloud. Blue Labour is just one theme. Alongside that are appeals to the "squeezed middle" - households whose living standards are eroded by inflation and stagnant wages. Then there is "the promise of Britain" - addressing fears that austerity marks the end of the era in which each generation did better than the last. "Ed's trying things out for size," says one friend and former cabinet minister. "The question is how do you turn them into one big thing, rather than three medium-sized things?"

The next question is how long it will take. Miliband avoided a summer of discontent with his decisive handling of phone-hacking. The Labour Party will cut some slack for the man who humbled Rupert Murdoch. For Miliband, the crucial factor was not that he achieved some great rewriting of political paradigms, but that he took on a bully and won.

That is not to say he looks like a winner. Chris Lennie, Miliband's preferred choice of party general secretary, was recently vetoed by union bosses who installed their own candidate, the GMB political officer Iain McNicol. Already lines are being drawn in a follow-up battle over membership rules and the bloc vote at party conference. There is, too, the prospect of more strikes in the autumn and protracted confrontations between irate public-sector workers and an intransigent government.

Miliband's position is safe but the illusion of unity beneath him will be ever harder to sustain. The Labour Party wants to be on the march, yet it is led by a man taking his time, thinking aloud, flying kites.

Rafael Behr is chief political commentator of the New Statesman

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

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule