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14 May 2015

Leader: Labour has to choose between reform and irrelevance

It seems as if some on the left prefer the ideological purity of opposition to the pragmatism of winning elections.

By New Statesman

Ed Miliband challenged his brother, David, for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2010 because he believed that it was his destiny to become prime minister and, as his confidants liked to put it, to rewire capitalism for a new era of deepening inequality. Convinced that the financial crisis and the consequent Great Recession had created a “social-democratic moment” rather than, as it turned out, a preoccupation with fiscal discipline and balanced budgets, Mr Miliband steered his party to a defeat that was all the more shocking for many of his supporters because, misled by the polls, they believed to the last that he would end up in Downing Street. Yet, had this happened, it would have been no victory at all. A Miliband minority government would not have had a resounding mandate for economic and political transformation: it would have been dependent on the whims of the Scottish National Party, Labour’s rival.

This magazine had long been sceptical about Mr Miliband’s leadership. Last autumn, we warned that he was leading ­Labour to defeat, not because it gave us pleasure to do so but because the most vulnerable in society are not best served by Labour being out of power. It seems as if some on the left, however, prefer the ideological purity of futile opposition over the pragmatic task of winning elections.

In our issue of 1 May, in which we made our election endorsement of Labour, we warned that Mr Miliband had not “changed the character of his party enough” and that he had “not created a sentiment from which truly transformative policies could have flowed”. He had argued “simultaneously for more austerity and more socialism”. Nor had he found a way of channelling the aspirations of working-class and skilled lower-middle-class voters in the Midlands, the Home Counties and southern England. In our view, Labour must be the party not only of social justice, but of social mobility.

Surrounded by a small group of male academics and advisers (whom the shadow cabinet minister Michael Dugher calls “pointy-heads” on page 36), Mr Miliband offered a highly theoretical critique of globalisation’s failings. But it was as if, at times, he was addressing a group of insiders rather than seeking to build a broad coalition of support throughout these islands. The result was a devastating defeat for Labour. As soon as he became leader, Mr Miliband was eager to distance himself from the Blair years, even the successes. This was a strategic mistake and angered many of his MPs. Unlike Tony Blair, Mr Miliband seldom spoke about education (even though state academies were the creation of New Labour) or Britain’s place in the world. Far too late, he attempted to reframe Labour as the party of fiscal rectitude by including a “Budget Responsibility Lock” in the manifesto, months ­after forgetting to mention the deficit in his party conference speech. In the end, when it mattered, Labour was not trusted to run the economy more competently than the Tories.

On 11 May, David Miliband criticised his brother for allowing himself “to be portrayed as moving [the party] backwards” and said that Labour “will not win” unless it “embraces aspiration and inclusion”. Other senior figures from the so-called Blairite wing of the party have been much bolder in their denunciations of what they perceive to have been Labour’s wrong turn under Ed Miliband, who, in our view at least, was correct to identify inequality as one of the great moral challenges of our time.

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We are urging no return to Blairism. It was the creation of a certain time and a peculiar set of circumstances. What applied then may not work today. What is necessary is a period of sustained reflection. “Labour has a cultural problem to resolve,” Andrew Marr writes on page 32. “It’s about how the party speaks, the way it pitches its appeal. It’s vastly more important than who the next leader is.”

Meanwhile, the Tories have returned to power with a slim majority that very few – an exception being our own Peter Wilby, as he reminds us on page nine – thought they were capable of winning. Already some trenchant right-wingers, such as John Whittingdale, the new Culture Secretary (and scourge of the BBC), have been appointed to the cabinet. We face the prospect of a divisive EU referendum and £12bn of hastily and ideologically enforced cuts to the welfare budget, which will hurt the weakest and poorest. And the unity of the United Kingdom as a multinational polity remains imperilled. This is what defeat feels like. Has Labour got what it takes to absorb the pain and return stronger, ready to win? Or does it face another long ­period in the wilderness, speaking only to itself?