The Labour Party’s arch-Blairites rallied at Manchester’s Comedy Store last Sunday—but there were more tears than laughter after David Miliband’s defeat in the Labour leadership election.
“I sense there’s a subdued atmosphere at the moment,” Ben Bradshaw MP told the hushed crowd. “I think it’s still sinking in for some people.”
This was supposed to be a Labour Party conference fringe event hosted by the Progress “thinktank”—a hard neoliberal faction within the party.
But it seemed more like a wake for David Miliband’s leadership campaign.
“I was one of David’s co-chairs of his campaign,” said Jim Murphy MP, almost choking on the words.
“You said in your kind introduction that I’m a good organiser… but clearly I wasn’t good enough.”
By the time failed London mayoral candidate Oona King took to the stage, there was an inescapable feeling that power had finally drained away from the Blairites.
“We had a bruising leadership campaign. The result was a difficult moment,” she said, her voice breaking.
Going on to speak about her mayoral campaign, she added, “I really, really learned who my friends are—and it turned out that most of them are in this room.”
By then the room was half-empty.
Lord Mandelson, who had been scheduled to speak, didn’t even show up. “Now what?” one delegate asked another. No one had an answer.
Ben Bradshaw insisted “very firmly” that “New Labour is not yet dead”—but it didn’t feel that way.
Back in the real world, “Red Ed” Miliband has already vowed that his win won’t mean a “lurch to the left”—and there’s no reason to disbelieve him.
But while the Blairites were holding back the tears, those with some connection to the left and the workers’ movement were chuffed to bits.
Union delegates who had backed Ed had a newfound confidence. “Of course Ed got it,” one told Socialist Worker with a smile. “How could he not, with Unite backing him?”
Gone from this changed conference were most of the business stalls—replaced with huge trade union ones.
On the Saturday, less than an hour after the leadership result, the mood at the left wing Grassroots Umbrella Network fringe meeting ranged from optimistic to jubilant.
Kelvin Hopkins MP told the meeting, “Today for me was the end of a long dark night. I really do believe that New Labour died today.”
Downstairs in the bar, young party members who’d worked on Ed’s campaign partied loudly. “We won!” they shouted—hugging, kissing, still laughing in disbelief.
The mood was celebratory. But Katy Clark MP was more accurate on Ed’s victory when she said, “It’s good to see someone who the Blairites didn’t want elected as leader of the Labour Party.
“I haven’t got a clue what Ed will be like as leader. But I do know that it was ordinary trade unionists and people who want a Labour Party that is about the values all of us believe in that elected him to this position.
“Many people voted for him because of what he said about a decent living wage, about reducing the gap between rich and poor.
“Let’s make sure the new leadership hears what we’ve got to say.”
Leader's key speech faces two ways
Ed Miliband made one important break with Blairism in his conference speech on Tuesday when he condemned the war in Iraq.
He said, “I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that.” There was nervous applause.
But he was strongly in support of continuing the occupation in Afghanistan.
Miliband tried to balance between those who want an end to Blairism and those on the right of the party. But trying to balance in practice will mean that the Tories win the ideological battle—and it won’t build resistance.
So he backed “responsible trade unionism” but then said, “I have no truck with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes. The public won’t support them. I won’t support them. And you shouldn’t support them either.”
He said, “There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. I won’t oppose every cut the coalition proposes.”
But he also said, “A banker can earn in a day what the care worker can earn in a year. It’s wrong.”
To those who had dubbed him “Red Ed” he said, “Come off it.”